new zealand electronic poetry centre

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a new zealand journal of poetry and poetics


1,000 Words or a Picture:Could Poetry be a Contemporary Art? 


I am trying to find out where and how a certain New Zealand poet has been anthologized in recent years when I come across, on the Amazon site, the hundred most commonly used words in An Anthology of New Zealand Poetry in English, edited by Jenny Bornholdt, Gregory O'Brien and Mark Williams (OUP, 1997). Some of these words—Auckland, Wellington, Christchurch, University, Zealand—are clearly residual artefacts drawn from the introduction and/or the biographies of the poets represented and so don’t come from the poems; there are probably likewise others—book, born, new, press—that don’t belong but, short of eviscerating the text, there’s no way of knowing, so I leave them on a list of ninety-five that now reads:

across / again / air / another / away / between / birds / black / blue / body / book / born / came / children / cold / come / dark / day / dead / death / door / down / dream / earth / even / eyes / face / fall / far / first / go / god / green / hands / head / heart / hills / home / house / know / land / last / leaves / let / lie / life / light / little / live / long / look / love / man / may / men / moon / morning / mountain / new / night / nothing / now / old / once / people / place / poems / press / rain / red / river / road / say / sea / see / sings / sky / small / still / stone / sun / take / things / think / though / time / tree / two / water / white / wind / words / world / years / yet

It’s hard to resist the thought that this list conceals as it reveals an ur-poem, a base template for the imaginings of those represented in the anthology and, by extension, all those who have written poems in English in New Zealand. There are in this ur poem children but no adults; men but no women; black, blue, green, red, white but no brown, orange or yellow; cold but no hot; old but no young; love but no hate; time without space, stone without rock, rain without tears, death without birth … sun and moon are both here though, dark and light, night and day, sky, mountain, river and sea. Some of the sequences seem spookily felicitous: hands / head / heart / hills / home / house; while others—nothing / now / old / once—hint at a residual meaning that, like a ghost fragment from Samuel Beckett, can’t quite be recovered. The commonest word (339 occurrences) is down.

I post the full list on my weblog and, sure enough, a reader can’t resist making a poem out of it. He’s a man from Scotland with an Indian name but I know nothing else about him; and, unfortunately, his poem lacks the luminous strangeness of the unedited list. This perhaps means that the ur poem is non-negotiable, is analogous to a Chomskyan deep structure generative of New Zealand poems without constituting anything other than a list of archetypal resonances that act upon our peculiar psyche. Rain / red / river / road, for instance, could be taking us along a muddy clay track somewhere in Northland to a bach where we might at last cherchez la femme.  Or not.

One of the notable things about the list is that, while it looks like a slice of L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E poetry, any poems generated from it would be relentlessly elemental and rigorously anti-urban in focus. They would all be, more or less, landscapes. You could conjure Georg Trakl style poems from it at will, for instance, but a Frank O’Hara imitation is not remotely possible. Or, to change the focus, you could certainly parody James K Baxter using these ninety-odd words but not Alan Brunton or Leigh Davis. If I were teaching a creative writing class, I think, I would first ask the students to compose a poem using all of the words on the list; and then to try to write the same poem using none of them.

Naturally I can’t resist the first exercise but, oddly, can’t bring myself to alter the order of the words; the resulting simple play with lineation doesn’t satisfy me and moreover, like the Scottish Indian’s attempt, somehow diminishes the plain alphabetical list. What I would really like to do is read the words aloud, not to myself in the privacy of my flat, but to a live audience on some public occasion. I feel that if I were to do this, the piece might come across as highly ironic, even satiric, while at the same time making a performance that is deeply moving. Perhaps it is one of those rare found poems that partake of caricature and authenticity, that is risible and meaningful in equal degrees.

So that, although my first instinct was to read the list as anachronistic, absurdly solemn, fatally skewed towards the portentous lyric utterance—come / dark / day / dead / death / door / down / dream / earth—there is something about it that I can’t dismiss, something irreducible, even incontrovertible. It is in the end a kind of rebus: a representation of words in the form of pictures or symbols, often presented as a puzzle. This might sound contradictory but isn’t necessarily so; for the list is made up of units that resemble words but might in fact act more like tesserae, the chips of faience or marble or smalti that go to make up a mosaic. If you could solve this puzzle, I think, if you could assemble this sonorous mosaic, you would then have an answer to the question as to whether (or not) poetry could be a contemporary art: across / again / air / another / away …


Last updated 25 May, 2009