new zealand electronic poetry centre

David Howard



A selection of book covers and comment by David Howard


In the First Place (Christchurch: Hazard Press, 1991). Cover photograph Paul Swadel

In my twenties I resisted the idea of the book, which seemed a presumptuous marker when I understood so little. Ignorance didn’t stop my more confident peers from sprinting into print; indeed, it was the tail wind in their race towards reputation. They were welcome to the momentary attention – and the leisurely embarrassment.

I held each page up to the light
to try to read, also, the shadow poem:

It is in the nature of the ego to appropriate. Janet Frame’s ‘On Reading a Book of Poems’ describes my approach; after fifteen years of writing and a decade of periodical forays it was time to hold each page up to the light.

So the poems collected by In the First Place were precociously slow. But Paul Swadel’s photographs were fast. They map one night of alleys, gardens, and bedsitters in central Christchurch. They’re impertinent double exposures framed in the camera rather than shaped after the fact in the darkroom.

Studying the cover from the hillock of middle age I hear the echo of Kendrick Smithyman in the AucklandSunday Star (30 June 1991):

David Howard’s poems are accompanied by photographs from Paul Swadel. These are formidably sophisticated. They may make you doubt that you are intellectually up to them. The poems may have a similar effect at first, certainly a sense of shock, an uncommon astonishment at the extraordinary poise which is part and parcel of these usually quite short pieces. They are admirably judged, they last long enough to get their various effects but not longer. A certain authority matched with an appreciable intelligence, a body of information used with taste guides the reader into puzzling and on to delight, under government and restraint . . . Howard’s collection comes from 10 years, 1980-1990, his twenties. It should be exciting seeing what he produces in his 30s.


Holding Company (Christchurch: Nag's Head Press, 1995) OP

Cover graphic Jenny Rendall

See the dustwrapper by Ngai Tahu artist Jenny Rendall? Peel it back, the real cover is underneath – an elegant white rectangle gummed to Fenian-green cloth. Set by Robert Gormack in a limited edition for his Nag’s Head Press, Holding Company soon went out of print. This was due to the reputation of the publisher not the author. It is a traditional ‘slim volume’ where I work the personal without putting on hand-me-down confessionalism. Naturally it includes my most humorous lines; they measure the radius of intimacy without what Dr Johnson termed ‘the enticements of hope’.


Shebang: Collected Poems 1990-2000 ( Wellington: Steele Roberts, 2000) OP

Cover graphic Jason Greig

Online reissue Trout Press

What I wanted was a provincial pocketbook. A dowdy elegance to ease the reader through sly solecisms. What I got was the publisher’s equivalent of a raver in a red dress. My favoured image was Jason Greig’s ethereal ‘Miss Catharsis’ (1988). It is the fate of favourites to be banished. Instead ‘My soul from out that shadow’ (1982) is framed by a bloody rectangle, reinforced by letters that rivet it in place. The effect, as Jack Ross commented, is of a rock poster rather than a book cover.

If I was after Presbyterian restraint, why approach Jason? Because the melodrama of his subject-matter is held captive by a miniaturist’s technique. With humour, which is also a pervasive if unrecognized quality of the poems. But Roger Steele’s rationale for Murnau was accurate. This beast, Shebang, would crouch on the shelves of bookshops, then leap towards unsuspecting browsers. To my disbelief an edition of 800 bounded out the door. Now Trout Press has made a second edition available on-line.


How To Occupy Our Selves ( Wellington: HeadworX, 2003)

Cover photograph Fiona Pardington

When trying art for size I attempt to remove my preconceptions; they’re damp clothes and prone to sticking. The opposition between carnal and spiritual predates Christianity, naturally, however Christ's reported conduct (in particular his delight in the company of Mary Magdalene) opposes such a distinction. While heretical, the poems play with the notion that (Christ's) bodily sacrifice engenders (our) spiritual redemption. But this conjunction also reinforces the limbic – chemically programmed – connection between sex and death that has generated the gargoyled cathedral of Romanticism. Enter stage left Fiona Pardington.

In the original acknowledgements to How To Occupy Our Selves I wrote: ‘Our project was conceived when I read Fiona’s observation in Filling the Frame: Profiles of 18 New Zealand Women by Jenny Scown and Wendyl Nissen (Auckland, Reed, 1992):

I especially enjoy the beautiful language of the Song of Songs, the imagery has been an inspiration to me. The wedding motif is a description of the completion of the individuation process, of an ultimate union of psychic opposites, and the entrance into a state of divine wholeness. That seems to me to be a corner-stone for the enormous attraction of religious belief – the hope of a complete union.

There is some special pleading here, a rhetorical sleight-of-mind. Thomas Sloane (in Donne, Milton and the End of Humanist Rhetoric) argues that the development of rhetorical theory from Cicero to Augustine as revived by the Humanists is the benchmark for their estimate of humanity. An extreme (Protestant) application of Augustine is anti-Ciceronian; it denies the possibility of persuasion to truth. Eloquence as an art takes on the negative sense of ‘craftiness,’ so we arrive at the current notion of rhetoric as unethical manipulation. The poems in How To Occupy Our Selves deploy rhetorical strategies to temper the commonplace.


Embargoed Letters ( Dunedin: The Broadsheet Company, 2004)

Cover xerox Kim Pieters

Working a crib of Louis Sebastian-Mercier's 1771 novel The year 2440: a dream if ever there was one, I hit upon this:

- ‘What, everyone an author! Heavens, what an idea! Your walls will burst into flames like gunpowder, and everything will explode. Good God! A whole population of authors!’
- ‘Yes, but without gall, without pride or presumption. Every man writes what he thinks in his better moments and, as he grows older, he draws together a collection of the finest recollections of his lifetime. Before his death he compiles a book, which is larger or smaller according to his own way of seeing and expressing himself. This book is the soul of the departed. It is read aloud on the day of his funeral, and this reading alone constitutes his eulogy. Children collect, with great respect, all the thoughts of their forebears and meditate upon them. These are our funeral urns. I think they're preferable to your sumptuous mausoleums or your tombs with their distasteful inscriptions dictated by pride and engraved by vulgarity.’
           (L'an deux mille quatre cent quarante, reve s'il en fut jamais)

This is a monumental idea; unfortunately Embargoed Letters is a mischievous example of the vulgar. Peter Olds was cranking up The Broadsheet Company, a hand-to-mouth honest-to-god imprint. He wanted out-takes that were populist and, perhaps, controversial in the way that talkback radio is. You know, momentarily.

I attempted three sorties in syllabics; two were set by designer Kim Pieters. These are open letters: a respectful interrogation of Charles Brasch’s poem ‘Eternal Questions’ and a questionable questioning of Sam Hunt. The third remains embargoed.


The Word Went Round ( Dunedin: Otago University Press, 2006)

Cover painting by Garry Currin


You could say David Howard is a one off, and then ask the question, Who isn’t?

Okay. But if someone told you that early in the 21st century he’d written ‘a pair of dramatic monologues that circle the character of a Catholic tenant farmer who shipped out’ to NZ ‘on the Asia in 1874’, and that the poem ‘The Word Went Round’ ‘explores journey as a form of imitation’, that it highlights a mix ‘of the tedious and the marvellous, when flight from love is also the search for it’, and there’s ‘overlap between the visible and the recalled’, would you still doubt that he’s pretty unusual?

Howard’s been a roadie for rock bands, so he knows a fair bit about the feral world. He’s also worked in bookshops, so he knows some truths about what people read and that, by and large, most give poetry a miss. He’s in tune with the outdoors – sees and hears the world around us and finds the words to prove it. And he’s surely the only New Zealand poet who can claim to be a professional pyrotechnician – I can see why that would appeal to a poet.

A few observations about the poems as they strike me. Ironies abound in the sense that, time after time, Howard reminds us how our convictions are shaken by experience. The words may go round but we can’t take any of them, what they denote and who uses them, for granted.

I like how direct and terse he can be in his verse. Take the opening four lines of the title poem:

No man would show
  good sense in taking
    a woman to him then
      settling on a farm that rank –

Then, a little further on he writes,

For Catholic tykes
  the representation
    of pain in a cathedral
       weighs less than griddle-cake come dusk,

Everywhere, Howard is saying, in the voice of his Irish immigrant, there’s little or no room for illusions. And when he writes,

It was written is small solace
   to an illiterate

I take that as him saying, deal with the realities of the here and now; flights to the hereafter won’t sustain us. His shipboard Irishman exhorts us to ‘Speak plainly,’… Say that you cannot / say. This is the Gaelic / way.’

When pitching and rolling in ‘The Word Went Round’ I kept thinking that Howard was suggesting that whenever there’s comfort, its bound to be shortlived, and discomfort’s sure to be sloshing round in the bilge of another ship of the self. As Freud might have said, inclination is but a mask hiding dis-inclination.

Throughout the book, the terseness – corrosiveness if you like – of utterance such as, ‘rhetoric gets up the blood / quicker than reel-step or hornpipe’, is balanced with graceful, evocative images as in the lines,

The green sod curls
  off the blade the way
    a wave curves on the shore.

Howard’s immigrant reckons ‘elsewhere is where / my ship will come in – ‘ but then he wonders where ‘Elsewhere is’. He also asks, ‘What’s an occupation / with no time to call your own?’ It’s a question that we continue to ask.

Howard gives us some vivid, diverting images. For example, ‘New Zealand / looms like a moult albatross’, and, ‘Off Cape Saunders’ he says, ‘the notion of “home” / slips like an excited pig / on wet decking.’ Then. later, he finds that ‘good and bad jostle like sheep / through a lychgate’,.. ‘and yet / Otago shines like loam / turned before church on Sunday.’ In the end, though, his rueful immigrant says, ‘Emigration / is a job for Job.’

The second part of the monologue, a sequence of fourteen fourteen-liners, entitled ‘On First Looking’, takes us up the coast and through parts of inland Otago. A journey, again. I read it as the poet saying we have to go back to our roots to get a better idea of where we come from and why we see – and act – the way we do in the course of learning more about where we’ve ended up. It made me think of Seamus Heaney’s remark that he saw his poetry coming from a fusion of his roots and his reading. My guess is Howard would agree with that, and that, even now, we’re still confused as to what we are doing here on these stressed islands.

The Irishman knows ‘nothing / about the direct route’, says, ‘Impossible to tell / who owns the land that shows / every footprint is temporary.’ Exactly, which raises the question to me, is it ever right for us to claim we own land?

There are wry asides aplenty: for instance, after fifteen days of rain we’re told ‘Oamaru’s runholders are stoppered / as surely as the Reverend’s decanter’, and ‘ambition’ is said to be ‘a sledge’ that ‘catches constantly on tree-roots’.

All right… there are other poems in the collection, and good ones. In ‘Letter to Charles Brasch’ he says Brasch’s verse is ‘wrought’. A good word for Howard’s, too.

Wrought, as a means of holding at bay what’s fraught about us, and our predicament here, is one way of reading it.

There’s a poignant sequence to the memory of his father called ‘The Held Air’ in which Howard quotes Socrates who said, ‘Learning is recollection’. The poems make one ask, can what we held ever hold up? Addressing his father, Howard says, ‘The comfortable life is the one / unlived.’ Surely an allusion to Socrates’ ‘The unexamined life is not worth living’.

I should say the cover and other reproductions of some very strong paintings by Garry Currin add force to the collection.

I would add that I was startled to hear that Creative NZ wouldn’t offer any assistance towards the publication of ‘The Word Went Round’. That strikes me as odd and regrettable, so I congratulate Otago for going ahead with the collection anyway.

Howard has his own ways of saying, and, something not all poets can claim, things to say.






Last updated 23 January, 2008