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Elizabeth Smither

about Elizabeth Smither


Identity in the Future Anterior: Teaching Historical Discontinuity

John Newton


Originally published as ‘Ghost-Towns and Competences: Teaching Historical Discontinuity,’ English in Aotearoa 41 (September 2000): 53-62



A poem by Elizabeth Smither, especially one set in Tudor England, might seem an odd place to pick up the traces of a conversation about New Zealand cultural identity. Smither is not the kind of poet customarily invoked in this context. But as academic thinking about the writing of national identity comes to focus on its sleight of hand, its silences and its improbabilities, Smither I think can be highly instructive in the way that she models the difficulties of speaking to history.

The Tudor style

Katherine Howard practising

Graceful poses for the block

Ordering the block to her cell

Like trying on a hat.

Violence and style together

Violence in style the creed

That took them from bowls or tennis

To be served up like meat.

Would Henry get to hear of

The way Katherine Howard walked

How she disposed her neck, her skirts?

Unlikely: he was violently out

Late partying, to correspond

With equal violence of forgetfulness

Returning late down the river

After a day violently preoccupied

While all over the kingdom

Games until the summons

Were absorbingly violent, calmly

Violent, graciously violently going on.

(Smither 1993: 24)


When I present this poem to my students, I always begin with the following question: Is practising for one’s own execution like trying on a hat? The answer I tend to get is either "No," or perhaps "Yes and no." Yes, there is a certain comic resemblance, and one can always get a laugh by rehearsing it with stage gestures; but no, the image’s comic energy derives more precisely from the disparity between the two terms of the simile. Thus, while Smither is in some ways a difficult poet to teach — and particularly in the context of an evolving New Zealand idiom — she is also, in my experience, a wonderful exemplar in thinking through the different kinds of work that can be accomplished with figurative comparisons.

Conventionally, among the poet’s core business is the bringing out of hidden resemblances in unlike things. In some kinds of poetry this function overshadows all others, most notably, perhaps, the Metaphysical poets in whose work, as Dr Johnson famously complained, "The most heterogeneous ideas are yoked by violence together . . ." (Johnson 1890: 24-25). Believing, we are told, in a witty universe as authored by a witty God, the Elizabethans and their immediate descendants fashioned extravagant comparisons into a master-pattern of coherence and continuity. But what interests me here about Elizabeth Smither — a highly literate poet, and surely much indebted to that Metaphysical tradition — is not so much the sureness of her persuasive and unlikely resemblances, as the cunning with which, at certain key moments, she accentuates the extraordinary unlikeness of the terms which she compares. Katherine Howard’s hat-fitting is this kind of moment. Another comes from a poem called "Iago before the racking":

I never had an impersonal experience before.

It is like coming into a kitchen

The scrubbed table, the instruments

Preparing a soufflé of flesh and spirit . . . .

(Smither 1993: 29)


Again here, literal and figurative violence converge in order to dramatize the historical distance from that moment to this. What was Shakespeare’s England like? According to Iago’s monologue, we are never going to know. Shakespeare’s characters inhabit a world impossibly — almost obscenely — removed from the implied reader’s House & Garden gentility: a world, that is, which resembles ours as much as torture resembles a soufflé. Or as much as trying on a hat resembles rehearsing attitudes for a public beheading.


So what does any of this have to do with constructions of New Zealand identity? The answer involves the tension between a continuous account of history and a discontinuous one.

Accounts of settler cultural identity invariably track an ascending gradient. There are numerous choices of governing metaphor — acclimatization, naturalization, language acquisition, psychological maturation, and so on — but the narrative they structure is always more or less the same: "we" dig in, settle, and through successive stages gradually mature as a culture. It is a narrative rehearsing an Enlightenment faith in progress, as refined and entrenched by Pakeha New Zealand’s immediate progenitors, the bullishly progressive Victorians. But it isn’t a narrative which sits quite so well with the fractured world of postmodernity. Where the favourite stories of the Nineteenth Century resoundingly attain their summits (Revolution, Liberation, Absolute Knowledge, Homo Sapiens), the more chastened narratives in favour today construe the process of historical emergence quite differently. In Thomas Kuhn’s theory of paradigm shifts or Gaston Bachelard’s epistemological break, the picture appears increasingly intermittent and goal-less; history proceeds by fits and starts, and as much by forgetting as by the accumulation of knowledge.

Nonetheless, Kuhn still gives us to understand that a new scientific paradigm "must promise to preserve a relatively large part of the concrete problem-solving ability that has accrued to science through its predecessors" (Kuhn 1962: 168). At times in the work of Foucault and his inheritors the sense of historical rupture become more extreme. Describing Foucault’s "archaeological" period, best exemplified in The Order of Things, Richard Harland contrasts Foucault with Hegel:

. . . Hegel claims that each new Zeitgeist incorporates what was of value in its predecessor. By [this] logic, nothing is ever ultimately lost. But by Foucault’s logic, nothing is ever ultimately saved. No understanding ever passes across the abyss between epistemes. (Harland 1987: 116)

Though the emphasis is not quite the same in the later "genealogical" work, this sense of epistemological rupture remains informative. In the famous set piece that opens Discipline and Punish, Foucault describes the ceremonial dismemberment of the regicide Damiens in 1757. Amidst a welter a truly appalling detail, what must surely startle a modern reader is the comprehensive way in which the victim participates in the spectacle of his own torture and death. Throughout this atrocious bodily ordeal, with its flesh-tearing, burning and breaking of joints, and the prolonged, futile efforts of a team of horses to tear his limbs off, the subject keeps track of the physical damage, while constantly engaging and conversing with his confessors and executioners. Foucault quotes Bouton, an officer of the watch:

The confessors returned and spoke to him again. He said to them (I heard him): "Kiss me, gentlemen." . . . . The executioners gathered round and Damiens told them not to swear, to carry out their task and that he did not think ill of them; he begged them to pray to God for him, and asked the parish priest of St. Paul’s to pray for him at the first mass. (Foucault 1979: 5)


How could a person respond this way? Frankly it seems inhuman to us, but this, from a Foucauldian perspective, is exactly the point: formed as a subject by a different discourse, a different régime of self-understanding, Damiens is a different kind of person, capable, as no modern subject ever could be, of accepting — and playing — his unspeakable role in this ritual enactment of the absolute force of sovereignty.

Like Smither, whose knowingly extravagant conceits derive an energy from the chasm between the Tudor world and ours, Foucault and his new historicist and cultural materialist readers have maximized this gulf, with the disruption which it introduces. At the most ambitious level, the aim is to lever apart the continuities of liberal humanism — "to relativise the present," as Catherine Belsey puts it, and free us from Human Nature with its ideological givenness: ". . . since change has occurred in those areas which seem most intimate and most inevitable, change in those areas is possible for us." (Belsey 1988: 409) On a smaller scale, meanwhile, this sense of intermittence offers an opening for many different kinds of critical research, inspired by an alertness to the contingency (and fragility) of knowledges, aesthetics and identities — including, potentially, dominant ones.


Given that apparently inevitable collusion between constructions of settler identity and the gradient of progress, the Pakeha literary culture of the mid-century could hardly have found a spokesman less gung-ho about that trajectory than Allen Curnow. In the famous introduction to his 1960 Penguin Book of New Zealand Verse, the premature backslapping of colonial entrepreneurs, be they capitalists or critics, earns his withering contempt. He is equally unenthused about a contemporary self-satisfaction with the Welfare State. Curnow, as anthologist and arbiter of taste, has done more than other literary figure to shape our image of national selfhood. Yet Curnow’s "identity" is downbeat and modest; at best, we are learning to outgrow some of our sillier delusions.

It is not a triumphalist story, then. Nor is it one which flows uninterruptedly. Curnow points repeatedly to an "historical divide," "the historical crevasse," "the discontinuity in our history" which divorces the colonial experience proper (of the Nineteenth Century) from his own present day (Curnow 1987: 137, 140). Beyond this divide is another divide, the abyss of a half-achieved migration,1 as in Butler’s dream of the Canterbury Alps transfigured into a monumental pipe-organ playing Handel (139). In the same context, Curnow adduces Butler’s admission of a "dreadful doubt as to my own identity — as to the continuity of past and present — which is the first sign of that distraction that comes on those who have lost themselves in the bush" (139). The grandiloquent bards of the Nineteenth Century, the Thomas Brackens and Alfred Dometts, are "lost" for Curnow in precisely this way, "between the land and the book, the mind and the hand" (140), in "a dream of grandeur, arching an impossible gulf" (139-40).

Now identity itself, in Butler’s formulation, implies the continuity of past and present. What, then, is the nationalist anthologist to do with this profound historical rupture and with these disoriented colonial titans — forbears who, in Butler’s phrase, which Curnow repeats, have lost "their power of collecting themselves" (139)? It is here that the narrative of progress re-enters by the back door. A handful of poems are able to be "salvaged" (135); beyond that the editor simply cuts his losses. The "obscurity" which "hides from us, as it hid from our forbears, the meaning of the colonial experience" (146) does not conceal anything which bears on the present: "I believe I have omitted nothing, from the earlier periods, which merits inclusion . . ." (135, original italics). The silence of the Nineteenth Century is simply the zero which anchors an ascending scale. "Looking back across the divide . . . a New Zealander can find nothing upon which a continuity of tradition might be established" (143). Nothing, then, it will have to be, for measured against this nullity improvement is at least possible: "a true reorientation — away from colonialism" (135); learning through "time and loneliness . . . what their colonial forbears could not" (136); "New Zealand in their blood, a stronger . . . infusion" (154); "an awakening into art" (155); a "tapped . . . spring," "a new accent" (162) — and so on, all the way down (or up) to that recent generation who at the end of the Second World War discover at last they have "predecessors worth quarrelling with" (169). Curnow’s response to this gulf in his history is simply to wind back the meter to zero: "I call it a ghost-poetry, as we speak of the ghost-towns of long abandoned goldfields, husks without a past or a posterity" (146).


I am not aware that anyone has yet challenged seriously Curnow’s verdict on the Nineteenth Century. Indeed, there are probably not many scholars who have read our colonial poets more carefully, and his demolition work on these disavowed fathers is not unenjoyable still for its sardonic zest. But where Curnow’s summary historical judgements have not worn so well is in his treatment of women writers, and particularly his near contemporaries. Obliged in the Penguin to account for Robin Hyde (though not for Eileen Duggan, who declined to be included), Curnow’s language is noticeably skewed by what he reads as a creeping feminization of poetic culture. Hyde herself becomes the chief exemplar of a "sickly second-growth of verse," "confus[ed]" and "confound[ed]", yet prematurely fêted, keeping alive the etiolated spirit of the colonial ghost-poets (167-68).

When Michele Leggott takes up her dialogue with Curnow, reading back from the 1990s, she too confronts an historical divide, but one with entirely different valencies:

Somewhere between the desire for foundation . . . and the individual, partisan act of preservation lies the story of what happened to women poets and their work as literary codes were altered just before mid-century by a cultural nationalism inimical to previous competences. (Leggott 1995: 266)

The decisive term is "competences." In the first place, of course, it’s a relativist term, contesting a one-way gradient of progress, raising the prospect of alternative knowledges held in abeyance by the ascendancy of a naturalized cultural nationalism. But the question is how to make contact with such an occulted legacy. As previous competences are lost, so are the skills to appreciate them: "Can . . . Hyde, Duggan and the others touch us, . . . long since trained in the pleasures (and prestige) of formal difficulty?" (Leggott 1995: 268) The global sway of academic modernism, married to a masculine, vernacular realism, begets a hegemonic language of settler identity so potent that alternative understandings have been entirely eclipsed. Thus, to re-join today this occluded cultural knowledge the reader is obliged to re-conceptualize the practice of critical writing:

I am working in the dark, trying to bridge the distance between their tradition and my standpoint, convinced these women have something to say that I need to hear. I am moving by a kind of textual infra-red, looking for places that make light of historical distance or heat up connections to the present. Already we are leaving exposition for the conditions of poetry, its partiality, its ability to leap the abysses it opens. (Leggott 1995: 269)


Leggott’s resisting focus on the nationalist intervention, while rendering dramatically its paradigmatic force, opens the space for an antithetical revisioning of Curnow’s way of reading the relationship between cultural identity and progress. For Leggott, in other words, this historical divide conceals, not a husk ("without a past or a posterity"), but the matrix of an alternative genealogy. The abyss, or historical vanishing point, that separates the reader from a usable past, becomes the site of an emergence of poetic energy spilling out across the intellectual workplace. A newly discovered sense of poetic affiliation (answering to a "desire for foundation") emerges in the polyvocal layerings of Leggott’s poetry in Dia and As Far as I Can See. In the same way, the "partisan act of preservation" foreshadows the enormous scholarly labour of reconstructing poorly remembered careers and fragmented textual legacies, most urgently Robin Hyde’s. Or again, a sensitization to different modes of aesthetic competence prompts a reconsideration of recent poets poorly served by nationalist criteria. A prime example is Elizabeth Smither, a "difficult" poet who has frequently been rebuked for her seeming indifference to the earthy, functional values of nationalist realism. That her literariness and aestheticism have been held against her, often quite unselfconsciously, says much about the narrowness of the literary currents that have continued to prevail downstream of the mid-century "watershed."


A final articulation of this contemporary suspicion of history-as-progress comes from the discourse of paleontology, and the controversy over the Burgess Shale, a small limestone quarry in the Canadian Rockies. For this, I am entirely indebted to Stephen Jay Gould’s book, Wonderful Life: The Burgess Shale and the Nature of History.

Gould describes the Burgess Shale, with its compendious fossil catalogue of soft-bodied Cambrian organisms, as "the most precious and important of all fossil localities" (Gould 1989: 13). First discovered by American paleontologist Charles Doolittle Walcott in 1909, the Burgess specimens were duly catalogued according the view of evolution that prevailed at the time. As Gould describes it, Walcott "shoehorned every last Burgess animal into a modern group, viewing the fauna collectively as a set of primitive or ancestral versions of later, improved forms" (Gould 1989: 24). It was not until the 1970s that a new wave of interpreters (Harry Whittington, and his students Derek Briggs and Simon Conway Morris), revisited these specimens to arrive at an almost diametrically opposed conclusion. According to this revisionist construction, the fossil record of the Burgess Shale preserves, not the few primitive antecedents of our contemporary biological diversity, but a wealth of diverse morphological types of which by far the greater number have long since vanished.

As a standard Victorian narrative of progress — if not, indeed, the definitive example — the theory of evolution is potentially ambiguous, raising at it does the spectre of species extinction. What redeems it, however, as Gould explains, are the conflated iconographies of the ladder of progress and the cone of increasing diversity (Gould 1989: 27-45). We have had to concede, of course, that not all extinct creatures are ancestors of ourselves. But by stressing the branching of species diversity — that is, from a single trunk we arrive at diverse and complex "upper" levels — and by a slippage from recent ("high" on the tree) to "high" on the ladder of complexity and progress, humankind has contrived to preserve its sense of teleological election. But the Burgess Shale reconstructions effectively up-root the tree. Contemporary global biodiversity (with ourselves as its most sophisticated species), far from representing the crown of a steady growth, preserves a few scattered remnants of an original wealth of evolutionary potential. As Gould writes, "The sweep of anatomical variety reached a maximum right after the initial diversification of multi-cellular organisms. The later history of life proceeded by elimination . . ." (Gould 1989: 47). Wind back the tape and play it over again (Gould’s favourite metaphor, from the Frank Capra movie of his title) and the chances of arriving at human life now appear infinitesimally small.

[Gould graphic]

It is not impossibly far from this irregular history of sweeping decimation and contingent survival, back to Leggott’s investigation into the fate of those "previous competences" in the shadow of the rampant prosperity of the masculine nationalist paradigm. Granted, it entails a metaphorical leap, but also the recognition that these revisionist manoeuvres share the same historical moment and the same distrustful attitude towards narratives of progress. For Leggott, the hard-bitten, square-jawed subject of Pakeha cultural nationalism is not an evolutionary masterpiece; nor does it spring inevitably from the local conditions over which it claims dominion. Its ascendancy is contingent, and costly. Other possibilities were bulldozed in the process of making room for it.

Similarly with the particular history of New Zealand women’s writing in the last hundred years. The picture is not, as has often been assumed, one of gradual, hard-won progress out of a voiceless prehistory towards the daylight of relative parity. It is easy to imagine that the period between the wars must been just like the Fifties except bleaker and still more inequitable. But Leggott’s account of historical rupture points, not to a gradual expansion of opportunities, but to a sudden and catastrophic contraction: it was easier, that is, to be a New Zealand woman writer in the century’s first three or four decades than at any time until perhaps as late as 1975. This finding is supported by Kai Jensen in his study of New Zealand literary masculinism. Though derived from what he cautions is a somewhat narrow statistical base, Jensen’s graphic tabulations bear out dramatically this history of decimation. Women, according to Jensen’s figures, published more between 1910 and 1930 than at any other time before the 1960s. In the same two prosperous decades, in fact, women published far more titles than men. However, by the 1940s their percentage share was in single figures, and even at the end of the 1980s had not yet recovered to the level of the 1930s (Jensen 1996: 100-01).

In a conversation with Ngaio Marsh, published in 1945, Curnow leaves room for an imaginary nation to develop in any of several directions: "Strictly speaking, New Zealand doesn’t exist yet, though some possible New Zealands glimmer is some poems and on some canvases" (Curnow 1987: 77). In a posthumous autobiography published thirty-five years later, Charles Brasch applauds Curnow’s 1945 anthology as "a hard frost [which] killed off weeds, and promoted sound growth" (Brasch 1980: 391). This is the story which Jensen’s figures tell, with a different rhetorical inflection. Or to borrow Leggott’s phrasing, between these two moments "lies the story of what happened to women poets and their work as literary codes were altered just before mid-century."

[Jensen graphic]

This essay has been composed of a sequence of illustrations which I like to present to students at the outset of my Honours paper in New Zealand writing and research. They help to sketch a model or topology of research activity. I am asking my students to consider the transition from the undergraduate world with its typically rather passive learning and problem-solving, to a graduate arena of self-directed research and scholarship. How can we can conceive of an ethical place in which to situate our skills in close textual analysis? Is it really true that a textualist training has equipped us to retrieve and to analytically reticulate salient cultural information?

Lately I find myself unable to resist the metaphor of a knowledge ecology. Knowledges (competences, cultural literacies) coexist, sometimes in harmony, sometimes not. They can prosper; they can also submit to extinction. They can reach plague proportions to the detriment of others. Knowledge diversity and bio-diversity appear to recommend themselves in similar ways. The skills that allow us to enjoy and to nurture this diversity of knowledges are among the privileges of a liberal education.

If, at any given moment, our idea of who we are is not a distillation of the best that has been thought and said but something which is altogether more contingent, then "reading" (in the broadest and most active sense) can be imagined as a kind of knowledge conservation. Yale critic Barbara Johnson implies as much when she asks, rhetorically, "Where can the world’s unread letters be kept other than in writing?" (Johnson 1987: 31). Again it must be stressed that what is meant here by "writing" is both broader and more specific than simply words on the page. The term is used here in a post-structuralist context to refer to a resistance, or shadow, or surplus potentially latent in any communication: not just poems or stories, then, but gossip and newspapers, songs and sermons, treaties, advertisements, judgements, and so on, all harbour residues of non-transparent meaning. These non-apparent meanings are the currency of what we profess as reading. They can also be a form of historical endurance, which is, I believe, an encouraging brief to be able to take with us, as readers, as we explore beyond the classroom.

Psychoanalysis likes to refer to the temporality of the future anterior: what I will have been for what I am in the process of becoming. Curnow calls on a version of this tense in a famous (but I think somewhat under-appreciated) statement from his Caxton introduction of 1945:

The good poem is something we may in time come to recognize New Zealand by, not something in which we need expect to recognize obvious traces of the New Zealand we know. (Curnow 1987: 49)


As the New Zealand we recognize changes, so will what will have been Curnow’s "good poem." This poem will affirm and inform a New Zealand which as yet we have not arrived at, while that New Zealand will do the same for the poem. In the context of a postmodern knowledge ecology, it is a hopeful thought that superseded values and understandings can enjoy a kind of half-life which (à la Jurassic Park) may permit them to be reactivated, even after a period of dormancy. We are constantly working to re-write the past in keeping with a future that we are in the process of creating, and the richness, complexity and diversity of that past is translated into the repertoire of futures that we are capable of imagining. What, therefore, will have been the cultural history of the kind of New Zealand we would like to inhabit? Of those "possible New Zealands" that glimmered on the page in 1945, just a narrow band have prospered. Others, however, remain dormant but still legible, awaiting only readers from the kind of future that has a use for them.



Belsey, Catherine. "Literature, History, Politics," David Lodge, ed., Modern Criticism and theory: A Reader, London: Longman, 1988, pp. 400-10.

Brasch, Charles. Indirections: A Memoir 1909-1947, Wellington: Oxford University Press, 1980.

Curnow, Allen. Look Back Harder: Critical Writings 1935-1984, ed. Peter Simpson, Auckland: Auckland University Press, 1987.

Foucault, Michel. Discipline and Punish: The Birth of the Prison, trans. Alan Sheridan, New York: Vintage, 1979.

Gould, Stephen Jay. Wonderful Life: The Burgess Shale and the Nature of History, New York: Norton, 1989.

Harland, Richard. Superstructuralism: The Philosophy of Structuralism and Post-Structuralism, London: Methuen, 1987.

Jensen, Kai. Whole Men: The Masculine Tradition in New Zealand Literature, Auckland: Auckland University Press, 1996.

Johnson, Barbara. A World of Difference, Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1987.

Johnson, Samuel. Lives of the Poets, Vol. 1, London: George Bell and Sons, 1890.

Kuhn, Thomas. The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, Chicago: Chicago University Press, 1962.

Leggott, Michele. "Opening the Archive: Robin Hyde, Eileen Duggan and the Persistence of Record," Mark Williams and Michele Leggott, eds., Opening the Book: New Essays on New Zealand Writing, Auckland: Auckland University Press, 1995, pp. 266-93.

Smither, Elizabeth. The Tudor Style: Poems New and Selected, Auckland: Auckland University Press, 1993.

Last updated 11 May 2001