Keynote address presented 21 April 2006 at BLUFF 06, Te Rau Aroha Marae, Southland
The phrase ‘the South Island Myth’ was coined to debunk rather than characterise, yet its accompanying assertions are anthropologically at home with the noun ‘myth’. The phrase originally described a concept of New Zealand as a geo-physical frontier that was literally cultureless before the arrival of Europeans, an upturned tecton now bearing immemorial forests, bare rocks and vacant seas, superficially settled by Maori but in essence remote from the concerns of man. For historian critics like Keith Sinclair or W.H. Oliver, this wrong-headed view was perpetuated even by celebrated writers: by Listener editor Monte Holcroft in his essays on Westland forest or Fiordland’s Monowai, by Allen Curnow whose anthology introductions bear the back-drop of winter light in the Canterbury plains, and even Denis Glover, whose Arawata Bill wanders alone in the Olivine catchments without maps or instruction.Conversely, for Sinclair, Oliver and now John Newton, Lydia Wevers or Stephen Turner – European New Zealand liberal intellectuals – Te Waipounamu as much as Te Ika a Maui are pre-permeated with the myths and stories of a First People.
‘The South Island Myth’ then describes an obsolescence. For young academics at Otago or Canterbury university, this vision of an empty existential horizon – life among bleak King Country hills or the huge glacial bowls of southern Canterbury, epitomised alike by film director Vincent Ward’s Vigil and Lady Barker’s Station Life in New Zealand – is not so much an outright truth as a cultural artefact, a belief held by less secure generations about themselves as they broke through into our collective future. For some this myth represents the shallow-rooted spiritual condition of ‘setter-modernity’, and the present outpourings of the poets, where they address the issue, inevitably reflect further stages in our collective search for apparent at-homeness – however much this search may in fact be a red herring.
Still, there are other meanings to the phrase, and in the friction of these different meanings is potentially a basic warmth, maybe not for our predecessors, but for ourselves as the reliquary of their values, stories, mind-sets and beliefs. In 1951, when Frank Sargeson flew to Timaru for the Writers’ Conference, he declared that his north had ‘never felt...half so frightening as the super-superb indifference of those Southern rocks & mountains’.Today some of those slopes to which Sargeson referred have chair-lifts or mountain bikes on them. Still, there can be no denying the real power of the elements. At such times as it snows to sea-level, I like to think of that great patriarch Rakaihautu at what Atholl Anderson has called ‘the half-light of history…where gods become ancestors and ancestors take on the attributes of gods’. I’m interested in the man as much as the god, travelling along the Waiau river into what is now Lake Manapouri, 'Motorau'; the real Rakaihautu doubtless felt basic fear at times just as wilderness travellers do today in Fiordland or the Landsborough headwaters, although there were no helicopters to salvage his wrecked body in the event of an accident. His fires must have been small at the foot of the mountain, and at times he may have heard the beating of great wings, what in Waitaha mythology was called the 'Pouakai’ (presumably the extinct Haast giant eagle). The ‘South Island Myth’ of Curnow and Holcroft, as I understand it, refers not so much to an historically empty place as a land of light and dark, wind and silence.
Rakaihautu, who carved the great lakes with his digging stick, travelled in the dream-time of the gods, yet the last four centuries, more historically fixed than this half-light, are similarly mysterious. Possibly, the lives not just of Waitaha and Rapuwai but of most pre-contact Maori ultimately escape comprehension by a rationalistic, occidental mind-set. Much though names and practices survive in contemporary discourse, there is something persistently alien for this mind-set in the stories of the Ancients, which are as profoundly rich, generative and strange as the land itself, no less so than the Greek world of Homer and Thales. How am I to understand the story of Aonui, who fell overboard from Tamatea-pokai-whenua’s Takitimu waka and became a basalt rock on Tokomairiro mouth, or of Puketapu, left behind by the Arai Te Uru waka when she went out to find firewood, who was frozen into a mountain near Palmerston at dawn? A newcomer to the field, I can’t pretend to be any sort of historical gatekeeper. Moreover, I’m little more than a self-motivated student of the tales of Bunker, Kelly, Tucker, Edwardson, Weller, Boultbee and Jones: the European whalers and sealers who first met with latter-day chiefs like Tuhawaiki and Tairoa. But poets write their poems in service to the land and its stories.
Poetry has always attended to the unknown, both expressly and implicitly. Of course, words on a page, arranged according to the imperatives of literary movements, either recent or historical, can hardly be regarded as possessing a distinct mandate from the world to which they pertain; in one sense, they are merely cultural artefacts, commonly with less popular appeal than advertising slogans. Indeed, most poems are destined to be ground up over time just as rocks are ground up into sand. On the other hand, ‘the Poetic’, that determinative force of characterisation that shapes our self-understanding, will warp and endure for as long as the human ape endures. Wallace Stevens made this link between text and the Poetic the central theme of an oeuvre which interrogates the very possibility of meaningful existence after the death of God:
We do not prove the existence of the poem.
The irony of Stevens’ title is brilliantly apposite: ‘Primitive like an Orb’. The Poetic is not about choice (the ferocity of a winter sea is nothing over which we have any control) nor does it ‘care’ particularly about publishing, arts grants, or the critical reception of a poet’s book. The Poetic delivers the certainty of mortality when I stare at frigid mountains; equally, it is that horizon of reckoning which makes sunset a beautiful time. The Poetic, at least as I understand it, has no essential relationship with poems, however much poets, modern or ancient, strive to apotheosize its existence in their works. Entirely inhuman though deeply historical, the Poetic is neither living nor dead, perhaps it can hardly be said to be a thing; yet I believe that it exists, and I write poems because of it.
The Poetic South of Murihiku, of Southland and Otago, of Te Whaka-Tanga-o-te-Karehu a Tamatea and Fiordland (John Hall-Jones records Tuhawaiki’s name for Preservation Inlet, Te Kakahu-o-Tamatea – the cloak of Tamatea), shows itself through its people rather than simply as the consequence of their intentions. It ought to go without saying that humans are not actually in control of the beautiful, fierce, fragile, large, small, erratic things that happen about them, though these nevertheless fill up their lives. The poetic South might be likened to a local wind that quite incidentally makes a sound through poet and unpoet alike–the sound perhaps of the remote Wairaki biv in the Takitimu mountains, of Orepuki in autumn, or of roadside flax under the winter sun. (Of course this wind metaphor would suggest that what I am describing has a clear-cut character, and we have already speculated that it may not be a ‘thing’, at least not in the same way that a pebble or a tooth is a thing).
Whatever. There are poets. Poets are people who persistently put words into arrangements that they believe capture something of this phenomenon, which for them is the heart of life. They know that it is neither they nor their work which is fundamentally important but rather the world beyond and intrinsic to writing. The root of the word ‘mystery’ intimates something of the acquired role of the poet, coming as it does from the Greek mustes, meaning ‘one who has been initiated’. Poets belong to a priestly code of ethics, shaped by successive representatives over millennia; that is, their sense of what ought to be written about is formed, consciously or unconsciously, from examples of artistic conduct which precede them. At some point the poet strives to adapt such examples to his or her own experiences, to respond in his or her own way to the world of flux and light.
Today’s poetry in the South would be very different without David Eggleton, David Howard and Cilla McQueen. All three poets have been writing for over thirty years. That said, their approach to poem-making, and its place here, varies markedly. Eggleton chooses to emphasise the pervasiveness of contemporary materialism, whereby naturally austere Milford Sound has become a prominent tourism image on the London Underground; while Eggleton’s personal attachment to the Mainland is clear in a number of recent, singularly romantic poems, his work consistently addresses how our sense of mystery has been repackaged as a market product. McQueen and Howard choose less to satirise than critique the shallow-rooted condition of settler-modernity: as Howard has written in ‘The Human Tongue’, ‘this “Edinburgh of the South” insinuates/ itself into the Pacific, which will insinuate/ Itself into the Atlantic’. Both latter poets have been drawn to historical themes as a means of elucidating precisely this contingency which underpins even the act of writing. The work of all three poets is characterised by a duality of resistance and fatalism.
In a now well-known early poem, ‘The Mess we Made at Port Chalmers’, McQueen found solace in a concept of deep time as a point-of-reference suggesting the eventual healing of the land, after this age of men and machines has passed:
In deep time, the trees have already recovered the hills,
All we would see if we were here
McQueen’s poems protest the insensitivity with which the colonial project has historically wormed its way through geo-physical frontiers, immolating those who opposed it and their culture, and commonly justifying the intrusion with assumptions of its own pre-eminence. For Turner or Newton, ‘The South Island Myth’, intended originally as a description of modernist disaffection, is merely one more example of colonialism.As McQueen’s later preoccupations intimate, no single writer has ever been able to check this imperialism which is joined at the hip with occidental modernity, and indeed all three poets are direct products of its influence.
In her fine recent books,Soundings and Markings, McQueen has summoned local personages to enshrine the poetry of history. In ‘Immigration 1810’ it is James Caddell, the first Pakeha-Maori, whom Honekai abducted after slaying the sealing gang to which he belonged (the boy subsequently married Honekai’s niece); in ‘Tuturau’ she pictures the controversial chief, Tuhawaiki, who fought against Ngati Toa in the 1830s, traded with Pakeha (before drowning in suspicious circumstances off Christchurch), and who disclosed early history of the South Island to Edward Shortland; in ‘An Apparition’, McQueen addresses the ghost of that ruthless Elizabethan buccaneer and colonist, Sir Richard Greynvile, who settled Roanoke in Virginia. There are less war-like people too: the last native residents of the Scottish island of St Kilda, a Maori woman ‘caught’ (the ambiguity is deliberate) by the painter William Hodges during Cook’s second voyage, even the poet’s long-time companion, now with the sea, her cat Lucille. Unusual though it may sound, a cat is an historical figure just as a kokako or a stoat: the historical is immanent, part of the evening witnessed at Waituna mouth, the meaning of ‘crayfish’.
Indeed, the short lives of geologists and poets alike are determined by historical frameworks over which they have little control. That said, their disciplines elucidate possibilities for living meaningfully on soil that is older than any of us can comprehend, no matter how its age is represented in our speculative horizon, soil from which they came and will return to. In an excellent recent poem, ‘Ode to Magnetic South’, Eggleton self-consciously articulates this un-nameability:
Ground of yarn, of unwrought aluminium, of sausage casings,
Eggleton’s ‘ground’ is both literal and theoretical. Everything listed, including such ostensibly inorganic matter as tyres and visitor’s centres, has been drawn out of the crude matter beneath our feet. That said, the gulf apparent between different phenomena discloses that great unknowability to which we ourselves are drawn back, ephemera in a carbon cycle. While Eggleton’s poetry is often humorous, his observation here on the like provenance of heavily manufactured items has more serious ecological undertones. As the German philosopher Martin Heidegger commented, ‘We are always already near the heart of god’, by which he did not mean a pumping mass of red tissue inside a fluffy old man.
The poet’s desire to unsettle the reader stems then from a desire to enlighten, historically, personally and ontologically. Howard’s ‘Unseasonal’ strives, following Curnow, to grasp the experiences of a nineteenth-century colonist’s journey to what is termed ‘the bottom of an unfathomable world’. If any conclusion can be drawn, it is that we take the present too much for granted – that we need to be more tentative in our decision-making, given the waste callously left by our forebears. His descriptions of early Pakeha existence in Christchurch are evocative:
the kitchen floor is daubed with fern
when he leaves it is in a red blanket
bounds over your practised psalms against hail
The central character has evidently made little attempt to integrate himself with the alien inhabitants of Kaiapoi or their culture. The poet however hovers in the ether, seeking to understand the roots of his own practice as a European New Zealand poet, and alongside this his identity as a South Island resident now, in terms both of this Unknown of his own history and also the elemental remoteness of the new land. ‘Unseasonal’, as one modern meaning of the title might suggest, ends on a self-critical, trenchantly modernist note:
Everyone’s ancestors marched into darkness.
The final line ‘crossing the bar’ alludes to Tennyson’s poem of the same name, but the Victorian’s lyric, with all its famous melancholia, acquires a new context, the rough breakwaters of lonely colonial ports, in which much is variously frightening and wondrous to the transposed European.
New Zealand poets are today comfortable in these islands – there have, after all, been no Invercargill suicide bombings in recent years – and yet the ongoing colonisation project evident in wind farms and hydroelectric dams illustrates continuing public blindness to poetic mystery. Moreover, Eggleton, Howard and McQueen all recognise that even short-sighted developers, building their hotels on the edge of a mountain, manifest a larger historical paradigm. Eggleton, ever sceptical of the rhetoric of progress, captures this blindness in his poem ‘Explorers’:
The quest for an ulterior motive leads us
Put simply, neither the developers nor the poets of any age exactly comprehend what they are doing. No less than the pioneers of settlement, today’s New Zealanders are dragging their fingers along the wall, groping for a switch to illuminate history.
Myth, which pragmatists and rationalists commonly place opposite science as a misguided or unenlightened way of life, in one sense inheres in every construction anyone has ever made of the world. Even after Hiroshima, Chernobyl and Mururoa atoll, we might call atomic theory mythic, insofar as the processes of empirical induction from which its results have been derived are merely scaffolding over what remains enigmatic. ‘The South Island Myth’, by which Sinclair referred in his History of New Zealand to Curnow’s Empty Land, suggests a more enlightened understanding of pre-European New Zealand; and yet, for all its merits as rational critique, I feel the phrase was never intended to house a land of light and shadows. The South Island is myth: its essence endlessly eludes the precise formulae of real estate agent and ecologist alike. Poets, at least those initiated to the power of the unknown, tend to look beyond the totalizing discourse which is common to many rationalistic activities, registering the precariousness of human existence.
Throughout her work, McQueen has shown a fascination with science not as absolute truth so much as a type of poetry through which a largely unknown universe yields its complexity. Here is her short poem ‘Axis’:
shells pipe sea music
‘A World in a Grain of Sand’: the shells and fern fronds are at first glance unremarkable elements of New Zealand coast and bush, though each has been quietly evolving here for something like eternity. ‘Axis’, which McQueen also used as the title for a recent Selected Poems, implies equally the stem of an organism, a line of direction requiring precise balance, and the point at which things surface in their fullness. It is her philosophy not only of poetry but of intrinsically poetic human existence, a precise delineation of the unknowable, revealed to itself in its fragility, towards which we ourselves are able to grow. The manifestations of the ground, Eggleton’s ‘Magnetic South’, can only appear along this axis, this point of ‘access’.
If an everchanging, endlessly elusive world of parallax and silence shows itself to McQueen along this line of definition, for Howard it is lit up through poetic ‘conceit’. The poet describes himself as a modern metaphysical poet, by which he means he hopes that his work provides readers with a type of quasi-transcendent enlightenment (this is contra Dr Johnson, who coined the phrase with understated scorn to depict a group of seventeenth-century poets). Howard’s modern precedent for the metaphysical conceit is the German Jew Paul Celan, whose poetry registered with poignant ambivalence the merely ostensible transcendence of incinerated parents, rising as smoke from the death camps. Writing in the safe haven of latter twentieth-century New Zealand, Howard seeks to encourage his own readers to comprehend singularities of time and place, domestic and quotidian contexts, as opportunities for personal philosophical development. Like McQueen’s, his is a poetry of self-realisation without a terminus: he strives to reckon human existence with respect to the infinite.
‘Reiko Kunimatsu’s Play House’, a fine poem from Howard’s forthcoming collection The Word Went Round, movingly relates the aesthetic privilege of shifting perspective, in this case through the eyes of a gifted young Japanese artist of Buddhist leanings, killed tragically by a train in North Otago. However chiding (even avuncular) the tone, the poem celebrates life lived with all its possibility and limitations. In the first of four sections, Howard manipulates his line-breaks to suggest how intentional fatalism can devolve into apathy:
On our sea-wall gorse softens
benign. ‘Oh this habit of always
yet to come.’ I wanted to talk
opportunity and motive.
Kunimatsu is presented as a self-realised Alice in the doll’s house of epistemology, content to frolick in mutability and verisimilitude. Leigh Davis once called this attitude ‘bourgeois epistemology’, by which he may have meant that such speculation hardly deals with more fundamental concerns like eating and killing. The final section, which alludes to Kunimatsu’s prospective return to her native Japan, bites harder, though with sadness rather than scorn, urging the (dead) artist to embrace an underlying truth as the precondition of her meditations on perception, and with it the sometimes unpalatable texture of rough-shod reality:
Dust on lock and bolt. Up the
Our valley filled with Firestone
The final imperative ‘See’ might almost appear meaningless – how after all can we not ‘See’? – were Howard’s statement not weighted with the gravitas of death. Mere intellectual game-playing is rendered effete by the brute fact of existence: to ‘see’ in Howard’s sense is to come to terms with void. It is only through this conceit of stepping outside and into our everyday selves that we can comprehend the unknown as a force of ambiguous ethical detemination.
While Eggleton has masterfully affirmed the Otago historical landscape in ‘Waipounamu: The Lakes District’, a more recent punk rant, ‘Descent from Mount Aspiring’ leaves the mountain in a shroud even as the poet hammers his reader with his idiosyncratic cynicism. ‘This is a descent to nothing that you recognise/ this is a descent to taste fame and not to want it’: the mountain, and by implication the land itself, is conspicuous only as something which defies labels or clichés, which by virtue of its very absence shows up sordid human vanity. Indeed, the real remoteness of the rock acts as a pivot from which the ranter verses what he sees as a contingency, lack of direction and psychological anarchism particular to his times:
But the earth shrugs, the stars titter, and the sun
Aspiring has vanished. Eggleton wants to say that he doesn’t give a fuck about anything; but of course he cares inescapably, if just because history compels him to. Irony cannot work without its alter-ego, ‘the right way’, which, if this deliberate absurdity is any indication, has become increasingly distant, even unreachable, memories of a journey. We might suppose that the poet himself has grown immune to the chemical charm of mystery; yet the writing continues, and in the same poet there are passages of first-rate lyrical evocation, celebrations of landscape and towns, love poems, movingly comic elegies.
The poets are very different; the poets are very similar; we can reiterate finally only that there are poets, though even this tends to be said by others, not by ourselves. The framework of this address should hopefully by now be self-evidently inadequate: with only a little comedy I might say that I have no idea what I’m talking about. The poetics of mystery do not form any consistent structure or form other than this common divination of limits, and in these limits are an intrinsic ethics of education as much as entertainment. All poets, even the most irreverent ones, are in this sense pedagogues, insofar as the craft to which they subscribe is bound primordially to mystery not merely in this culture and location but in other cultures elsewhere. In Greece or Ireland, mystery is different for modern poets; the New Zealand primates McQueen, Eggleton and Howard respond to the garbled language of horizons no less naturally than Seferis or Murphy. If there is a message to be learnt, it is: care, be careful.
Where is Rakaihautu now? He has been dead for over a thousand years. A remarkable figure, quite literally a legend, Rakaihautu is Captain Cook, Plato, Gandhi and Hitler: a morally ambiguous but nonetheless legitimate foundation figure not just for Maori but for other indigenes of every cultural extraction, for my friends Alistair Choie and Sonata McCleod, the first from an Outram family involved in market-gardening, the second of Tuhoe and Pakeha descent, growing up in Dunedin and Wanaka. However far-off the man, no matter what his character, he represents the genesis of the Poetic South,the first mouth in which words formed to voice the elements at work in Murihiku. As with Tamatea-pokai-whenua, Rakaihautu lies at the root of every ethical decision made concerning how to live here, not simply by virtue of his actions or proclamations but because of the opening which he rendered in travelling southwards through the Mainland. Until Rakaihautu, or perhaps his nameless, forgotten predecessors, the South Island lay dumb, voiced only in the selfish warbling of the birds.
Kia ora Katoa. Thank you.
1. Keith Sinclair, A History of New Zealand, Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1959, p. 301.
2. ‘The present writer once termed this congerie of attitudes a ‘South Island Myth’. Most of the writers who expressed them lived in, or came from, the south, though similar observations were made by one or two North Islanders, like John Mulgan. The idea that man had no past in these islands was less likely to occur in the north, with its numerous pa (terraced fortresses), monuments to ancient Maori occupation.’ Keith Sinclair, A Destiny Apart: New Zealand’s Search for National Identity, Wellington: Allen & Unwin, 1986, p. 253.
3. See Stephen Turner, ‘Settlement as Forgetting’, in Quicksands: Foundational Histories in Australia and Aotearoa New Zealand, ed. Hilary Ericksen, Klaus Neumann and Nicholas Thomas, Sydney: University of New South Wales Press, 1999, pp. 20–38; Lydia Wevers, Country of Writing. Travel Writing and New Zealand 1809–1900. Auckland University Press, 2002; John Newton, ‘Colonialism above the Snowline: Baughan, Ruskin and the South Island Myth’, in Journal of Commonwealth Literature, 34.2 (1999), pp. 85–96. http://www.engl.canterbury.ac.nz/research/jn1.htm (accessed April, 2006).
4. Frank Sargeson, cited in Picking Up the Traces: The Making of a New Zealand Literary Culture, Wellington: Victoria University Press, 2003, p. 190.
5. Atholl Anderson, The Welcome of Strangers: an ethnohistory of southern Maori A.D. 1650-1850, Dunedin: University of Otago Press, 1998, p. 13.
6. John Hall-Jones, Fiordland Explored: An Illustrated History, Invercargill: Craig Printing, p. 22.
7. John Newton has written: ‘The secular temper of a modernist-inflected nationalism, whose ascendancy, dating from the 1930s, breeds the myth of a culture invented out of nothing, will all but extinguish our affinity with a variety of "previous competences"’. ‘Colonialism above the Snowline’, http://www.engl.canterbury.ac.nz/research/jn1.htm.
8. This now widely documented philosophical observation was argued to singular effect in Horkheimer and Adorno's Dialectic of Enlightenment: ‘Myth becomes enlightenment and nature mere objectivity. Human beings purchase the increase in their power with estrangement from that over which it is exerted. Enlightenment stands in the same relationship to things as the dictator to human beings. He knows them to the extent that he can manipulate them. The man of science knows things to the extent that he can make them. Their “in-itself” becomes “for him.” In their transformation the essence of things is revealed as always the same, a substrate of domination. This identity constitutes the unity of nature.’ Max Horkheimer and Theodor Adorno, Dialectic of Enlightenment: Philosophical Fragments, ed. Gunzelin Schmid Noerr, trans. Edmund Jephcott, Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2002, p. 5.
9. Helen Gardner, ’Introduction’, The Metaphysical Poets, ed. Helen Gardner, Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1957, p. 15.