new zealand electronic poetry centre


Ian Wedde

Dave Mitchell

To be cool was the thing – louche, smoky, sardonic, saturnine, taciturn and self-contained in manner yet showing under-wing flashes of Romantic word-colour. Not straight in the sense of not square; dead straight in the sense of seeking the point of maximum emotional impact. Sexy, troubadouresque, a tad chauvinist, the wolfish grin of the boulevardier not the ingratiating smile of the nice guy. A performer not a reciter – the charisma of a voice growling, entreating, whispering, breathing, mocking – into the delighted, affrighted ears of individual audience members. The poetry closer to music than theatre: a performance of forms, phrasing and rhythm not histrionics; laconic not declamatory. Not literary, in the sense of belonging more with spoken than written language; yet artful and elegant on the page, consummately scored for both eye and ear. Frank O’Hara’s Ode: Salute to the French Negro Poets rather than T.S. Eliot’s The Wasteland. Unabashed about the importance of poetry, sceptical of subject matter – therefore ironic in relation to content but unrestrained in relation to mode. Urban and international in address, not domestic and certainly not national in the familiar sense of looking past the city at the encircling hills and paddocks of God’s Own. Not sonorous, nor clerical.

This could be a list of ways to describe Dave Mitchell’s poetry, but it’s more than that – it describes a moment he was prominent in, in Auckland in the 1960s and 70s, when the scene I encountered as a young poet in Auckland had its base upstairs at Barry Lett Gallery on Victoria Street and downstairs at the Wynyard Tavern on Symonds Street. In both places, Dave was often in a kind of double act with Mark Young. Mark played intellectual Baudelaire to Dave’s anarchic Rimbaud. Poets were listening to Bob Dylan’s nasal twang, plangent Joni Mitchell, the moody effrontery of Leonard Cohen’s first album, Van Morrison’s moaning rhymes (‘slipstream’, ‘viaducts of your dream’). No one was reading Allen Curnow’s Penguin Book of New Zealand Verse, not out of attitude but just because it didn’t matter. Drugs, yes, cheap red plonk, solidarity against the war in Vietnam.

Something did change around then. There was a cultural shift away from a faintly class-conscious British inheritance in which taste, education, and diction seemed implicitly allied, into a broader territory occupied also by popular music, the demise of modernism’s anxious puritan exclusivities, a preference for spoken language, a lack of self-consciousness in respect of rhapsody, a liking for some (but not all) contemporary American poetry. The ‘influences’ that Mark Young recorded stand at a small crossroads at which a few antipodean hipsters, Dave Mitchell significant among them, redirected the traffic. Mark’s list seemed to pour somewhat haphazardly into a vacuum created by indifference to an older set of glum, subaltern, post-colonial insecurities. It included Tristan Tzara, Burroughs, Akira Kurasawa, ‘Charlie Mingus & LeRoi Jones’, Miles Davis, ‘Rimbaud Verlaine & Baudelaire’, Jean Genet, Anaïs Nin, ‘Basho Cocteau Jean-Paul Belmondo’, Paul Eluard, Otis Redding, ‘Ray Charles & Terry Southern’ ... and so on. Not a lot of British heritage there. Mind you, this was in Auckland. We were parochial enough to be largely ignorant about what was going on elsewhere in the country. But looking back, and looking again at what Dave wrote and collected in Pipe Dreams in Ponsonby, I know he was more than just a very good poet. He was also that rare event, a timely poet, an exceptional and original talent around whom poetry swung into a different dance.

Now, of course, like everything timely, Dave Mitchell’s hipness seems a little anachronistic, its male confidence chauvinist, its sense of poetic mission somewhat vain. In 1980, Alan Brunton and I organised State of the Nation, a ramshackle touring show with a band consisting of Bruno Lawrence on drums and alto saxophone, Bill Gruar on bass, Wilton Rodger on guitar and anything else he could get his trembling hands on, and Dave Mitchell’s daughter Sara as a chanteuse. The poets were Brunton, myself and Dave Mitchell. It felt like, and probably was, a last rites for the male egoism that had seemed fresh back in Barry Lett’s in 1969. Wilton went mad and perched in a tree for the night somewhere near Whakatane. Coming back to the motor camp after an off-the-chain performance in Gisborne, Dave Mitchell saw aliens by the side of the road. They wore cowls or hoodies and long overcoats, and after the van had passed them he looked back through the rear window and saw that the cowls were filled with blank darkness with two glowing red dots for eyes. Wilton hid under a bed back at the motor camp; Dave paced up and down all night. I tell this story not to mock but to register a moment when the high poetic enterprise and romance of the late sixties seemed to drain away and be replaced with morbidity and dread. Other members of the troupe, in particular Bruno and Alan, remained in high spirits (I was counting out the petrol money in brown coins), relishing the daily near-catastrophes of our excursion; Dave, though, went quiet, as though he was listening for the roadside messengers.

He was even quieter the night in Wellington in 2000 at a celebration reading for the anthology Big Smoke: New Zealand Poems 1960-1975. The book itself, though manifestly published with the best of intentions, was something of a tombstone – or at least I find it so. The account of Dave’s mute reading when his turn came has already become a recursive anecdote. He stood silently on the little stage in the bookshop and, whether he was able to speak or not, seemed to choose rather to listen to a voice only he could hear. Perhaps it was his own, reading his own poem. Then Michele Leggott very graciously helped him from the stage. Nothing in his manner suggested he thought he had failed to perform, and therefore I concluded that he had indeed performed: his poem now consisting of a wary attentiveness, the acutely timed pauses between his spoken phrases of old extended into an artefact of total stillness.

Into this attentive moment, our own as well as Dave’s, comes at last a book that measures this poet’s exceptional achievement along the stretch between strut and silence.


Ian Wedde
16 April 2009, anticipating the publication of Steal Away Boy: Selected Poems of David Mitchell (Auckland UP, 2010),
ed. Martin Edmond and Nigel Roberts.


Last updated 21 November, 2009