new zealand electronic poetry centre


Ian Wedde


Introduction to The Penguin Book of New Zealand Verse, ed. Ian Wedde and Harvey McQueen (Auckland: Penguin 1985), pp. 23-52.


The history of a literature with colonial origins is involuntarily written by the language, not just in it: the development of poetry in English in New Zealand is coeval with the developing growth of the language into its location, to the point where English as an international language can be felt to be original where it is.

The ‘here-anywhere’ controversy that followed upon Allen Curnow’s essay in The Penguin Book of New Zealand Verse (1960) had a lengthy senescence. The problems it raised are dynamic rather than solvable. As late as 1971 Mike (Charles) Doyle could satirically advance some themes of the argument in a section of his long poem Earth Meditations:

as the purlieus they scarpered from
those vestrymen took scales
to weigh profit rather than justice
(or imagination). Thin milk,
alas, do they sigh, will trickle
from the fattest cow. Now, spent
a hundred years, half a globe
(fearing their history’s
chimerical clamourings?)
craven towards phenomena:
we are offered – geraniums.

(Earth Meditations II (xvi), The Coach House Press, Toronto, 1971.

– where the ‘geraniums’ refer us to Allen Curnow’s poem ‘A Small Room with Large Windows’ (see p. 201).

On both sides of what became a confusingly opaque argument (not always the fault of the immediate protagonists) there was an exercise of will in relation to language. It was going to have to be taught to do the job of making us feel ‘at home’ (or not) within whatever conception of that relationship we felt adopted by – the ‘drizzle’ of kowhai flowers in spring; gin in the suburbs; the Korean war segueing into our involvement in Vietnam; the re-emergence of racial issues from the smug obscurity to which liberal assimilationist optimism had consigned them; the linguistic republic of postmodernist words; and so forth – many intersections of identity and language could be added.

Within such a grid of intersections the important consideration must be relation, rather than mere location. As Murray Edmond (he would have been eleven in 1960) put it in ‘Von Tempsky’s Dance’ (see p. 504), a poem collected in 1973:

& on that island, in South Chile too,
the gold sophora grows.

(Entering the Eye, Caveman Press, 1973.

– where, by substituting ‘sophora’ for ‘kowhai’, he wryly defused the derisive function that flower had come to have in our literary indexing, recalling in the same lines a relationship with the American west coast that had survived since the commonplace traffics of early colonial times. His is an attitude that takes the indigenous pretty much for granted, though he likes to think about it (he does not simply ‘assume … environment’, as Robert Chapman put it in 1956), seeing its meaning as deriving from a sense of relationship. (Robert Chapman, introduction to An Anthology of New Zealand Verse, selected by Robert Chapman and Jonathan Bennett, OUP, 1956, p. xxxii).

The much vaunted renaissance in poetry during the 1960s and 1970s had as much to do with an atrophy of the sense of will-to-language, as with wider literary-historical developments. The language seemed to have flowed more naturally from the hieratic towards the demotic: two terms shifted from the Canadian critic Northrop Frye’s use of them in a literary-critical context to a more immediately linguistic one – where ‘hieratic’ describes language that is received, self-referential, encoded elect, with a ‘high’ social threshold emphasising cultural and historical continuity; and where ‘demotic’ describes language with a spoken base, adaptable and exploratory codes, and a ‘lower’ and more inclusive social threshold emphasising cultural mobility and immediacy. (Northrop Frye, The Well-Tempered Critic, Indiana UP 1963). Although we need to distinguish between industry and poetry, this flow must have been freed by the progressive erosion of various cultural dams. And certain ‘derivative’ developments out of Modernism, increasingly American from the late 1960s, appear since to have taken their guide-book elements of poetic language with them into an interior where language is original: there has come to be little residual missionary sense of poets operating at a frontier where you have to carry a life-supporting canteen from some distantly-located spring.

It is time to demonstrate that language can, happily, be subtly resistant to the standardising influences of international communications systems and the received orthodoxies of languages of administration and education. The best way to demonstrate this is by means of the issue of translation. This book contains a greater quantity of Maori composition than did The Penguin Book of New Zealand Verse (1960). The problems of translation will be dealt with elsewhere in the Introductions; they should remind us here that translation occurs through varying degrees, one of which is the transposition of language from one context to another; for example, the transposition of a largely oral literature, with a vitally public and unusually performed and musical context, to the written, private, passive, and literary context of an anthology.


Sit in the car with the headlights off.
Look out there now
where the yellow moon floats silks across the birdcage.
You might have touched that sky you lost.
You might have split that azure violin in two.

(From "Two Landscapes", Good Looks, AUP/OUP, 1982).

In this sense of a transposition of context, we can get away with saying that translation occurs when a poem in English by a New Zealand poet is published in an English magazine. Bill Manhire would seem to be one of the least conspicuously ‘craven towards phenomena’ poets now writing here. His poem ‘Wingatui’ was published in The Times Literary Supplement, and was quickly hijacked to the derisive ‘Pseud’s Corner’ section of a satirical magazine where, by implication, it had earned a place as an example of a preciously fatuous surrealism. However, knowing that ‘Wingatui’ is the name of a racecourse on the Taieri Plains (obscure), but more importantly knowing what ‘the birdcage’ is at the races, and what ‘silks’ would be (not so obscure), it is natural to read the poem as one of those miniatures at which Manhire excels, where the language enacts a cipher game with what turn out to be particular referents. What Manhire’s small poem does, without by any means slipping us a decodeable paraphrase, results from a natural gearing-together of poem, language, and context, including the ironically absent context in which many ‘poetry lovers’ do not, in fact, know what ‘the birdcage’ really is. We might guess that there was considerable humour for Manhire in publishing ‘Wingatui’ where he did, with the results that followed.

Location, then, not just in terms of place, but in the fullest cultural sense, is the consummation of a sense of relation.

A major ‘imported’ poetic influence must inevitably bring its larger context with it. Earlier this century, the transposition to a somewhat garrison situation of Tennyson’s Italianate English salon sonorities, for example, resulted in some startlingly inappropriate collisions of language, time and place in the poetry of Hubert Church, whose good intentions were no protection against his inability to read his influences in the full context in which he now found them. (Hubert Church, 1857-1932 – the author, between 1902 and 1912, of four books of verse, including several lengthy poems such as ‘New Zealand’ and ‘A Fugue’).

It is equally possible that some poets importing such influences desire the milieu rather than the poetics: prising language and context apart, they go for a poetics that will best decode its desired milieu, as a kind of template, in their own situation. The success of influence seems to depend largely on the confidence of the receiving culture, its ability to find consummation in location.

Kendrick Smithyman has been one of the most consistently confident tuners of such relationships here. ‘An Ordinary Day Beyond Kaitaia’ is a good example. (Earthquake Weather AUP/OUP, 1972). Into a ‘setting’ examined with his usual shrewd patience, Smithyman introduces a meditation on Rilke’s Apollonian dictum that we must change our lives, concluding that

If we live, we stand in language.
You must change your words.

Far from being a banal assertion that words are stuck to (and with) things (‘craven towards phenomena’), this emerges as a subtle declension of epistemological relationship, through which flows the suggestion that you cannot ‘stand in’ an unchanging language.

Another fine long Smithyman poem, ‘Tomarata’ (see p. 287), sleuths observantly (‘why the dog did not bark’) through the changing geology of a landscape. The musing voice that we hear is free of the anxieties of a language unsure about the tuning of its relationships: it gives us Sherlock Holmes at Tomarata, and Rilke and Heraclitus at Kaitaia, without needing to explain away any incongruity – we accept these presences because the language has. The voice is ‘indigenous’, as Murray Edmond puts it in ‘Von Tempsky’s Dance’, ‘as it walks about/where it is’.

And ‘Tomarata’ incidentally reminds us of the importance of, for example, the geographer Carl Saur in the 1950s development of postmodern American poetry, particularly in the work of Charles Olson and Edward Dorn. Olson’s instinct told him that a ‘New World’ literature, if it was to advance its sense of relationship beyond nationalism or cultural alienation, would have to do so by studying geography and anthropology as much as literary culture.

It is a theme that recurs frequently in this anthology. It is there in Janet Frame’s wry line from ‘Letter’ (see p. 301): ‘I came your way walking from paddock to field’. And it is more implicitly there in David Eggleton’s ‘Painting Mount Taranaki’ (see p. 515) – the poem’s sense of natural relation is instinctively satisfying evidence of language centred in a culture whose dimensions are internally familiar. It is possible to read influences there without doubting the originality of the poetry. The poem is the subject, not just about it – where ‘about’ implies will, a philosophic determination.

The claims to be made for such refreshed language should not be overstated. It is a question of relation, again. We need the hieratic depths, which need the demotic inputs of newer cultures. The relationship is ecological – a reticulation of nourishment. As Northrop Frye, one of the most disenchanted champions of his own culture, has put it, we expect a vision of beauty to be the end of the hieratic view of literature, and the possession of some form of imaginative truth to be the proper end of the demotic, ‘but if either is separated from the other and made an end in itself, something goes wrong’. (The Well-Tempered Critic, p. 137). Something often does.

Poets early this century, Hubert Church again, for example, had inherited a hieratic ‘vision of beauty’ language that had begun to be an end in itself. The process of undamming that leads to the sense of ‘rightness’ (or uprightness, as Allen Curnow might say) in David Eggleton’s poem has been a lengthy and progressive one of readjusting the relation in favour of the demotic. Only in this way could a locally original culture establish its relation ‘in the world’ to the point where it became internally familiar rather than willed.

The uneven history of this process, as well as participating in the wider literary-historical developments of Modernist and postmodern change, has been the short history of our developing English-language literature in New Zealand. And that history has been coeval with the growth of language into its centring ganglia of relationships, to the point where we can feel ourselves to be its original poets, its consummators.

What is called ‘New Zealand poetry’ is thus a process, not a national condition. Anthologising it has involved us in a selecting process which we, as editors, came to organise along lines of thought like those outlined above. It should be obvious that these lines have derived from reading the poetry, all of it that we could find.


A Times Literary Supplement reviewer, writing about Charles Brasch’s 1948 volume Disputed Ground (Caxton Press, 1948), had this to say:

…shows an acute historical sense, a great awareness of ancestry, of the formation of New Zealand as a country and a nation. It is, in fact, about what one would expect good Dominion poetry to be, but which it so rarely is.

These sentences, which sound as though they were being muttered by someone probing for a tomato seed under their dental plate, manage to convey also a sense of chagrined surprise. And while the last sentence of the quotation probes for its seed between ‘about’ and ‘to be’, most readers with half an ear for plain language will have assumed that ‘about’ is a qualifying word attached to ‘what’, not a preposition attached to ‘to be’ – so that the final part of the sentence comes as a confusing surprise; what you thought you were reading was a construction along the lines of ‘about right’ or ‘about what you’d expect’; what you get is correct enough, perhaps, but it sounds … foreign. This quotation appears on the dust jacket of Brasch’s 1957 volume, The Estate and Other Poems. The total effect is of being stranded at some pivotal mid-point in the process outlined earlier.

To get a fix on the essential question that demands to be asked at this mid-point you need to leapfrog back to something like Tennyson’s use of language in Maud:

Walk’d in a wintry wind by a ghastly glimmer, and found
The shining daffodil dead, and Orion low in his grave.

(Maud III, i, 13-14)

Isn’t this symptomatic of over-fertilised and consequently exhausted language, like a tillage that expends six bushels of topsoil in the production of one bushel of wheat? And again, doesn’t such language, which is almost literally nowhere except in a salon like a time-capsule, decorated with Italian souvenirs, demand the refreshment of language that is alert to its situation, to relation, to location? It seems fair to suggest that, in measuring the distance ‘good Dominion poetry’ had travelled in time and space to get from Maud to The Estate, the essential question to ask would be, not who are you, but where are you? – another of Northrop Frye’s acutely applied levers. (‘[Canadian sensibility] is less perplexed by the question "Who am I?" than by some such riddle as "Where is here?" – from ‘Conclusion to A Literary History of Canada’ in The Stubborn Structure, essays on criticism and society, Methuen, London 1970, p. 284).

After 1957, say, or the 1951 publication of Eileen Duggan’s last book More Poems, the question becomes less appropriate. The emergence into the 1950s of a generation of poets including James K. Baxter moved the process into another phase. The judgement-inviting sense of will-to-language begins to fade over the next decade. Prior to this, Frye’s lever comes in handy.


My name is David Lowston ….
We were set down in Open Bay….

It is unlikely that ‘David Lowston’ (see p. 71) had much interest in where he was beyond hoping that someone else knew too, and would come and get him. Nonetheless, since Frye’s question ‘not who… but where are you?’ contains the ghost of his hieratic-demotic relation, the superbly plain lines of this folk lyric contain the structure of the whole relation too.

The who and the where are interdependent, yet at times one will be a more appropriate question than the other. The concern with who you are implies a sense of tenure: returned beyond migration, an immature whakapapa can become legendary and nostalgic. Satirists of colonial insecurity have ridiculed the colonial desire to seek identity through legendary ancestry – to find a European aristocrat to ground that rootless who. The reciprocal hungers for each other of impoverished European nobility and New World heiresses is a kind of comic imprint of the same traffic. A sentimental attachment to the British Royal Family might be considered a related phenomenon. This who is hieratic: if you ask for it too early in the history of your tenure you are going to get lost in the illusory comforts of legend (which also come in proletarian guises), or in racially xenophobic culture, much as Hubert Church got lost in Tennysonian visions of beauty. By the time you have got it straight about where you are (where here is), the who may follow more naturally: the tenure of your whakapapa will be extensive enough to stand between you and delusion; the legendary can properly have become the mythic, an integral part of your sense of history.

Quite apart from its quality as poetry, therefore, ‘David Lowston’ seemed an apt place to mark the English beach-head of an historical anthology. It is outflanked by a classic and, in formal terms, hieratic, oriori of Ngati Kahungunu (see p. 67), and by the Ngati Porou waiata ‘E kui mã, e koro mã (see p. 73); both compositions would have been largely concerned with instructing the young in matters of who, allowing their where correlatives to be treated in formulaic ways. Thus, between two classic poems recording and commemorating whakapapa, is the marooned English sailor, on a desolate beach … historic archetype of Pacific translation.

Where was the melancholy Edward Tregear as he contemplated Te Whetu Plains (see p. 97)? Not quite there – his description drops wearily into negatives:

All still, all silent, ‘tis a songless land,
   That hears no music of the nightingale,
No sound of water falling lone and grand
   Through sighing forests to the lower vale,
   No whisper in the grass, so wan, and grey, and pale.

It is a language that subtracts rather than names, that reveals Tregear’s alienation. And in our own times the misuse of the word ‘culture’, or ‘cultured’ (as in fake pearls), in a negative sense similar to Tregear’s subtractions, is still not uncommon – where ‘culture’ is what is not there, or what you think should be, rather than what is: used in this way, the word signals alienation, not just ordinary dissatisfaction.

In the 1870s Australian poets such as Adam Lindsay Gordon, in ‘The Sick Stockrider’, for instance, had begun to name; the mythic topography is thin and sentimental, but New Zealand had no real equivalent.

It is with Blanche Baughan that we first sense the beginnings of an internal relation of where to the language of the poems. ‘A Bush Section’ (see p. 110), written soon after her arrival in New Zealand in 1900, deals ostensibly with the same subject as William Pember Reeves’s elegy ‘The Passing of the Forest’ (see p. 100). It has as its central character ‘Thorold von Reden, the last of a long line of nobles’, whose connection with European nobility Blanche Baughan is clearly terminating; and this childish, isolated who is set down in the midst of a desolation whose negatives the poet co-opts for their wider symbolic significance, suggesting at the same time that for Thor this landscape is original, full of magic, full of names.

Optimist with a social conscience that she was, Blanche Baughan was not above using ‘Thor Rayden’ as the sentimental emblem of her hopes and fears. This optimism re-emerges in ‘Maui’s Fish’ (see p. 114). Amidst a great deal of mawkish and boring retailing of indigenous myth by numerous colonial poets, Blanche Baughan’s poem stands alone. This is not least because the language can scarcely keep up with its theme’s opportunities to deal ecstatically with the question where? A half-century or so further on, Allen Curnow’s assumption of the same myth into his austere meditation on violence in ‘Canst thou Draw Out Leviathan with an Hook?’ (see p. 206) might make Blanche Baughan seem naïve and innocent (‘Live! Dare! Be alive!’ as against, ‘and you’re caught, mate’). Yet the distance her poem has come from the alienated, negative gloom of Tregear’s ‘Te Whetu Plains’ is not only astonishing in itself, it was also necessary as a stage on the way to Curnow’s own disenchanted occupancy of that where.

In her own time, critical commonplace admired Ursula Bethell’s more literary manner. Now we are likely, as did a few contemporaries, to recognise the qualities of her intimate miniatures. These personal poems, collected in her 1929 volume From a Garden in the Antipodes (published under the pseudonym ‘Evelyn Hayes’; Sidgwick and Jackson, London 1929), were intended for a friend in England (that ‘from’ implies a ‘to’). And yet it is obvious that these are not nostalgic cables ‘Home’. What is striking about these poems, released by an absence of literary expectations into the clearest of subtly highlighted speech, is that their informative purpose leads them not to large brochure vistas, nor into mythopoetic visions, but to finely observed domestic interiors, in which the ‘subjective correlative’ is carefully pruned: a more unexpected achievement than her literary manner in ‘The Long Harbour’ (see p. 125). And, her perception of relation edited to essentials by personal grief, she was able to write, in ‘9h July, 1932’ (see p. 129):

There shall be no insistence upon symbolism;
let each eye take the tokens, heart interpret,
individual tongue make fit to respond.

‘By the River Ashley’ (see p. 129), the unfinished major sequence she was working on at the time of her final illness and death, which we now have in the version edited rather too scrupulously perhaps by Lawrence Baigent and Charles Brasch for publication in the 1950 Collected Poems, reveals her as having begun to expand within this concept much as Robin Hyde did in her own autobiographical trilogy of sequences, ‘The Beaches’, ‘The Houses’, and ‘The People’ (Houses by the Sea and the Later Poems of Robin Hyde, edited by Gloria Rawlinson, Caxton Press, 1952).

The individual response of Eileen Duggan’s best poems subverts their Georgian decorum. As both Robin Hyde and Gloria Rawlinson had to over the next decade, Eileen Duggan struggled for independence within, and occasionally from, those muffling conventions. James Kelly, editor of the Catholic New Zealand Tablet, and her first keen promoter, can’t have seen the early evidence of this intellectual and emotional toughness in such youthful poems as ‘Rosa Luxembourg’ (see p. 136), first published in The Democrat in Dunedin in 1919; in his blithely irrelevant view, her Poems (1921) ‘are the products of a heart and mind inspired by two forces – Catholicism and a love for Ireland – rare in a girl who never saw the land from which her parents came many years ago’. Rare, certainly. Clearly, Eileen Duggan had to combat the anachronistic expectations of ‘cultural’ conventions in addition to those of a saccharine variety of literary Georgianism, among them assumptions about the kind of verse ‘properly’ composed by women, particularly women with sincere religious convictions.

‘Rosa Luxembourg’ pretends to pass disguised as a conventional expression of regret for childless womanhood. ‘The Shag’ (see p. 136) falls with unexpected emphasis on ears delicately attuned to animistic flora and fauna set-pieces. ‘Ballad of the Bushman’ (see p. 138) packs a somewhat dour punch in the folksy context of such genre writing. Most striking of all, perhaps, is the way the ironically reactive rhetoric of a late poem, ‘Prophecy’ (see p. 141), published in More Poems in 1951, is unsettled by the incongruous disturbance of the Tennysonian line, ‘And of men wanning away from a weird roaring of waters’. The only other place I have ever come across a verb cooked-up out of ‘wan’ is in poor Maud: ‘And ever he mutter’d and madden’d, and ever wann’d with despair’ (Maud I, iii, 1-2). The surprise caused by the appearance of this word in ‘Prophecy’ is a measure of the otherwise ‘fit respond’ of that poem, and others, which had succeeded in unsettling numerous conventions, not least those underlying James Kelly’s broguish pat-on-the-head Introduction of 1921.

When Robin Hyde left New Zealand in 1938 she took Eileen Duggan’s poems with her, comparing their ‘china’ to her ‘clay’. She didn’t take poems by Hubert Church. But then, neither are we surprised at Church’s Tennysonian verbs – they are about what we come to expect of his where.

This structural line from the ecstatic mythopoetics of Blanche Baughan through the economic focus of Ursula Bethell to the intellectual confidence of Eileen Duggan, thence to Robin Hyde’s late poetry, thence to Gloria Rawlinson’s, is one of the great strengths of the process we call ‘New Zealand poetry’. And as the struggles involved begin to be better known, we are able to turn that knowledge back into the ground of the poetry, the culture of what is there. Such an attitude is not just chauvinistic or self-serving; it derives from a recognition of the development of language towards the naming qualities of, for example, Eileen Duggan’s ‘Invasion’ (see p. 138):

War shows what each man’s country is to him.
Ah look with me on this great windy sod,
Richer by lines of leaves than Adam’s loam,
Its kowhais’ fiery drizzle in the Spring,
Its paddocks’ green oblivion of grass

(New Zealand Poems, Allen and Unwin, London 1940)

– where, now, we might find it irrelevant to wince at the kowhai, or at the ‘windy sod’; we might be less inclined, as did Walter de la Mare in his Introduction to her Poems of 1937, to suggest that ‘Macaulay’s New Zealander’ may have the ‘duty to and privilege, in those lovely and remote islands of his, to say the final word on the literature of England’; and more inclined to notice within the poetry the upwelling vigour of original language.

And to notice a code of alert irony which has seldom been recognised, but which is characteristic of much poetry by women from Ursula Bethell down: having heard it in Eileen Duggan, in Robin Hyde, Janet Frame, Fleur Adcock, Elizabeth Smither, we may feel the celebrated humour of A.R.D. Fairburn and Denis Glover, for example, to be more confident than witty.



The tall pine in the bracken. ‘Tis the place
Still as a catacomb; the waving mound,
Manuka-braided, where they buried deep
Wakefield’s beleaguered men. A massacre
May roll from memory like a drinking song
Chorused in murky taverns, dead the throats
That hurtled it; or stab us through the years –
‘This was a field unholy for our race.’
You will not walk tonight, old pioneers,
Te Rauparaha’s stroke was curt and shrewd,
And Charon paddled you ….

(‘Tua Marina; 1-11, from Egmont, T.C. Lothian, Melbourne, 1912, p. 16)

Here, as also in his very long poems like ‘A Fugue’ (‘… a bowshot from my casement Wakefield died….’ ‘A Fugue’ IX, 1, Poems, 1912, p. 168), Hubert Church laboured to find in his foreground suitable subjects for poems. Not only is it ludicrously impossible to bend the so-called ‘Wairau massacre’ to this suitable end (and even harder to time-warp Colonel Wakefield into a kind of ‘Lady of Shalott’ medievalism), but Church’s programme for local subject matter is also constantly sabotaged by the language he was stuck with: Tennysonian struggling, without a trace of irony, to advance through a Miltonic sieve into late-Victorian Browningesque dramatic monologue. It is not just that he was a second-rate poet, nor that we now enjoy the gloating benefits of retrospection. What we notice, in page after page of Church’s earnest castings at the indigenous, is the total failure of the language he used to hook into any ‘subject’; and we notice, too, that the direction of this diligent flinging-out of grapples is always away from the poet, out towards ‘a subject’. In diagrammatic form, we can represent Church’s position as: poet and indigenous-programme ‘subject’ on opposite sides of a chasm, with language failing to make any connection across.

A half-century later, in Charles Brasch’s long poem The Estate, the diagram has contracted: the poet is now on the ground of his poem, using a more demotic Wordsworthian thought-language to examine his situation. At the human centre of this examination are repeatedly solipsistic images: closed rooms, cosy fires, books, companionable silence, billowing white curtains. Outside in the world are, for example, those

           Who are planting
Deep in desert Otago Athenian olive,
Virgilian vine, pledges perhaps of a future
Milder and sweeter to mellow blunt hard natures
Of farmer and rabbiter, driver, storekeeper, orchardsman,
With usage of wine and oil from grove and vineyard
Shading stony terraces, naked gorges
Scoured now by frost and fire, no human country.

(The Estate iii, 29-36)

Brasch’s alienation is Eurocentric; and it is marked by legendary delusion: you cannot import the immense cultural depth of history implicit in ‘Virgilian vine’ any more than ‘Thor Rayden’ could maintain an unbroken connection with his European forebears. Nor was there anything very ‘mild’ or ‘sweet’ for Virgil in the dispossession of small farmers for the resettlement of demobbed legionaries: unlike Smithyman’s language in ‘Tomarata’, Brasch’s does anything but put us at ease with the presences it invokes.

Charles Brasch’s return to New Zealand from Europe committed him to a willed relationship of his art to its situation. This missionary sense he extended into a programme of constant struggle to find the tones and alignments in poetry that would bring harmony to the relationships between himself, his art, and ‘the world’. Because he thought aloud a lot in what he wrote, and studied landscape for its significance (‘Nature’ for its structure), and because of the powerful element of will in his commitment, Brasch produced the kinds of sibylline lines by which we can trace, in stages, this lifelong struggle. His careful attention to the echoes and developments within his work removes much chance of misinterpretation: in the space between the often-quoted lines from ‘The Silent Land’:

The plains are nameless and the cities cry for meaning,
The unproved heart still seeks a vein of speech

(The Penguin Book of New Zealand Verse, ed. Allen Curnow, 1960, p. 183).

and the much later line from his last major poem ‘Home Ground’ (see p. 185), ‘I tramp my streets into recognition’, we can read the record of a deliberate measuring of his own persistent progress towards some fitting occupancy, in his art and his life, of that ‘home ground’ he desired too much to ever quite live on without will. And certainly, in the single line quoted above, we can read his belief in the programmatic function of poetry in advancing the possibility of a natural relation, an internally familiar culture. In diagrammatic form, however, and certainly in 1957, Charles Brasch can be represented as a square peg in a round hole: Church’s chasm has gone, but there still isn’t a fit.

We must not attach too much value to these dialectical developments. Nonetheless, the historical process toward the sense of consummation in location that comes a quarter-century after The Estate with a poem like David Eggleton’s ‘Painting Mount Taranaki’ is also a development towards a sense of culture that is internally familiar: a development that, to some extent, cuts across literary styles or genres which cannot themselves be assayed together – though our literary history is almost wholly post-Romantic: unlike Australia, we had no eighteenth-century mode.

There is no programme left in ‘Painting Mount Taranaki’, except in the vestigial sense of a satirical tone that undercuts the idea of an indigenous programme-piece – a tone that may also be targeting some of the ambitiously well-done poetry of the 1970s, for example Murray Edmond’s ‘Von Tempsky’s Dance’. In spite of its ironies, the poem immerses us in its process. Its literary influences can be guessed at (John Ashbery, perhaps), but it remains completely familiar at a local level. It is inside its history. Its language is a confident if erratic blend of vernacular, lyric, and ‘high demotic’; this confidence allows for mobile and ironic cross-currents animating the texture and depth of the language throughout. And, in the central shape of the mountain, there is a cipher for the latest contraction of the diagram of development from Church’s colonial abyss, through Brasch’s existential struggle to fit, to the natural sense of relation of Eggleton’s poem.

‘Painting Mount Taranaki’ is not a ‘better’ poem than The Estate, that goes without saying; but it was written at a more integrated stage of our literary history, and it enacts that integration. Allen Curnow’s also much-quoted lines

Not I, some child, born in a marvellous year,
Will learn the trick of standing upright here

(‘The Skeleton of the Great Moa in the Canterbury Museum, Christchurch’, see p. 199)

are often flourished at such moments over the poet considered fortunate enough to have coincided with this moment in evolution. In fact, the lines conceal a couple of delayed-action warnings: at the moment of presentation we realise that we may be congratulating the nominee for nothing better than a currish party-piece; a less malign signal informs us that you can’t ‘learn’ without being taught, which may not imply teachers, but certainly does imply process or development. And so you put the award away; it will never be presented, except perhaps to ‘history’, which is continuous anyway, though not by that token linear – in my own mind, I can’t help sliding the figure of Thor Rayden into the persona whose literal vision drew him to the modern wastes surrounding ‘the cone shape,/like a pile of drenched wheat, of Mount Taranaki’.


In these historical and dialectical terms, our ‘mainstream’ poets show variously related profiles. A.R.D. Fairburn’s sentimental lyricism, in such Georgian poems as ‘Winter Night’ seldom reveals the subversive quality with which Eileen Duggan can alert us. It is more often in poems that combine a kind of visionary bitterness with a laconic music, a characteristic falling rhythm, that the extremes at which Fairburn worked are welded into a tough, inimitable eloquence, for example in ‘Tapu’ (see p. 144): a precarious amalgam which can disappointingly curdle out again, as it does at the end of ‘The Cave’ (see p. 143): ‘… lovers’ breaths who by salt-water coasts/in the sea’s beauty dwell’.

R.A.K. Mason’s ‘drab blade’, his monosyllablism and the quantitative Latinate flatness of his rhythms, seems to come out of nowhere in the late 1920s stage of the process we call ‘New Zealand poetry’; yet this austere demotic atmosphere sustains syntactical inversions and ‘poetic’ effects in a relationship of condensed irony; this intensity, which was Mason’s genius, reveals how alert he was to the location of the language he was using. Forty years later, the poems of David Mitchell often achieve a similar intensity: demotic austerity containing intense lyrical pressure.

It is a relation which is reversed in a poem such ‘Young Knowledge’ (see p. 164) by Robin Hyde, into which the poet seems to have brought much of the verbal excess of her ‘child prodigy’ poetry, but where the ‘poetic’ settings are constantly jarred and eroded by blunt phrases:

What your hard soles have taught you, and rough hands,
What your wet eyes have dealt with, and tight mouths.
What your bewilderment gave you, and hot heart,
That only is your knowledge. Take and bear it.

– an effect that accumulates through the poem towards the final dramatically bathetic image of a man ‘of good sense’, the scientist Charles Heaphy, climbing back up out of a real excursion of the mythic into the everyday, and acknowledging to himself that this cannot be presented to the world-at-large – the rational world, ‘the cities’, will not have it. In this context, Hyde’s precariously poetic language, fissured with disenchantment and the ironies of its curt interruptions, is superbly appropriate.

This alertness to the situation of language, an unwillingness to allow the tensions of relationship to escape unused from the poems, has been a consistent quality of Allen Curnow’s poetry. Always more integrated in its effects than Fairburn’s, never as suffused with pressure as Mason’s, never as risky as Robin Hyde’s, and rarely enacting the existential struggles of Brasch’s, Allen Curnow’s poems, sometimes to the exasperation of commentators, have held pretty steadily to their urbane alignments for close on fifty years. If this rigour has not often produced poems that are endearing or ‘accessible’, it has abundantly paid off in the translucent qualities of his late work, in, for example, You Will Know When You Get There (AUP/OUP, 1982). The title poem, concluding a book that can be read as a disquisition on death, confronts that reality with the lone figure of the poet, who includes himself in the human community through the unemphatic use of the pronoun ‘you’:

                                             A door

slams, a heavy wave, a door, the sea-floor shudders.
Down you go alone, so late, into the surge-black fissure.

(see p. 209)

The familiarity of a location, and of a ‘human history’, have been assumed into language that has itself achieved a lucid poise of relation. The distance from ‘willed’ qualities of commentary in ‘House and Land’ (see p. 197) to the translucent assumption of context (and of myth: Hine nui te po) into language in ‘You Will Know When You Get There’ is not just a matter of literary history or personal achievement – between historical and personal there exists an exactly derived cartography of the reclamation of the language we now ‘stand in’. Not all ‘New Zealand poets’ will care to acknowledge that language as theirs, in any personal sense; but few will be able to deny the precision of the tide-charts.

In the earlier poems of James K. Baxter, it is the demotic which is always reclaiming the poetry from an insecure hieratic tone committed to abstractions:

How many roads we take that lead to Nowhere,
The alley overgrown, no meaning now but loss:
Not that veritable garden where everything comes easy.

In these lines from the first verse of ‘The Bay’ (see p. 333), a poem of the late 1940s, it is only the last two words (‘comes easy’) that stall our urge to deflate (for example by substituting ‘vegetable’ for ‘veritable’). The tension of this relation is much less finely tuned than in Allen Curnow’s poems; yet it is obvious that Baxter was shrewdly aware of it, despite the banality of his critical comments, for example in the Introduction to his plays The Devil and Mr Mulcahy and The Band Rotunda, where he distinguished between ‘street language’ and ‘bureaucratic language’: ‘A modern playwright has the choice … ‘ (Heinemann Educational Books, 1971).

In his finest poems, this awareness produces a characteristic tone of covert humour. It is a tension, too, that enacts the persistent dualisms of those earlier poems. ‘On the Death of her Body’ (see p. 336) releases a sweetness of understanding only after its anxieties have produced the literal image of an abyss – less a pit to fall into than an image of the violent prising-apart of love and disgust. And this fundamental diagram, by implication, returns us to the ‘beauty’ and ‘truth’ of Northrop Frye’s interdependent terms: to hieratic and demotic, and to who and where.

One reason Baxter’s poetry achieved an unparalleled readership in this country is that its language structures consistently enacted, and developed upon, the relations involved in achieving consummation in location – a phrase whose camouflaged sexual and recreative metaphor he also understood. With the exception of the great Ngati Porou composer Tuini Ngawai (her work is virtually unknown among non-Maori speakers anyway), James K. Baxter is probably the nearest we have come this century to a ‘folk poet’ whose circumference our reading does not seem able to reach. His poetry, and the ways he balanced relations of language and context, produced, I believe, deep-seated and even subliminal sympathetic reactions in his readers. The qualities of his late, great sequences Jerusalem Sonnets and Autumn Testament result from integrations of language as much as from the related integrations of conflict:

          In the corner I can hear now

The high whining of a mason fly
Who carries the spiders home to his house

As refrigerated meat. ‘You bugger off,’ he tells me,
‘Your Christianity won’t put an end to death.’

(Autumn Testament 42, see p. 346)

– where we hear, simultaneously, a ‘truth’; the characteristic humorous tone of a self-parodying, living voice; the easy movement of prosody that has mastered an inimitable use of elision and caesura; all located in a context that has everything to do with relation, but little to do with the will-to-location, or the will-to-language.

Using signs that were always big and clear enough to generously risk parody, Baxter has gifted us with an immense and uneven body of work that has done more than anything else in our literature to bring into balance, for us and in us, that precariously alert yet instinctive sense of internal relation between who and where, between language and location: the culture of what is. This anthology is as much ‘post-Baxter’ as it is ‘post-1960’.


Expatriatism, which as editors we had thought might be a problem, proved to be less so once our reading had produced the lines of thought discussed so far. I was reminded of Antony Alpers’ description of Katherine Mansfield as ‘an epiphyte of the language’ (The Life of Katherine Mansfield, Viking Press, New York 1980, p. 177), and her implicit denial of this in sentence after sentence that draws sustenance from location. It is with regret that we abandon for example, William Hart-Smith to the Australians, and younger writers such as Nigel Roberts, Mark Young, and Eric Beach also. The contributions made by Peter Bland (U.K.) and Mike (‘Charles’) Doyle (Canada) to poetry in New Zealand are gratefully acknowledged: in particular we miss Doyle’s Earth Meditations, with which he began to signal his readiness to move on. An edition twenty years hence may leave Alan Brunton in New York, and Fleur Adcock and Kevin Ireland in England; in the meantime we recognise their continued connection. Our decisions in this area were influenced by the clear need for Maori content in this anthology, as well as by the general principles outlined in this Introduction – the two, of course, are closely related.



The need for Maori content was obvious and problematical. The difficulty of translation of context has been mentioned. Insistence on the primacy of texts in Maori goes some way towards solving this; however translations themselves can seldom do justice to the condensed simplicity of waiata such as Hera Katene-Horvath’s ‘I ngã ra’ (see p. 223, and note p. 539), which in Maori has a resonance tapping into tradition which English cannot reproduce: even the very best translations must serve rather than equal their originals. We hope that Margaret Orbell’s Introduction and the notes provided will establish a context for the non-specialist reader. The Maori poetry offered here can only sample the amount that exists already in various recorded forms.

For help with this work we are indebted to the Centre for Maori Studies and Research at the University of Waikato, particularly to Hirini Melbourne and Katerina Mataira; to Sam Karetu and to the Advisory Committee for the Teaching of the Maori Language, Education Department, and to Hone Apanui of the Maori section of the Education Department’s School of Publications; and to the Maori and South Pacific Arts Council. We are deeply indebted to Ngoi Pewhairangi of Tokomaru Bay and to Maaka Delamere-Jones (Te Aomuhurangi Te Maaka) of Omaio in the Bay of Plenty, for long talks and for their advice; to Mervyn McLean for his patient and enthusiastic explanations in the early planning stages; and to the many others who raised objections or gave advice.

And in particular we are indebted to Margaret Orbell, who agreed to take on the difficult task of assembling a selection of traditional and ‘transitional’ compositions. Her job was not easy: she was to ensure representation in tribal and in genre terms; to choose examples which were accessible to the general reader without losing a sense of the complexity and diversity of the tradition; and as far as possible to use sources which could ensure tribal assignation. In addition, her lucid translations, with their refusals to import interpretation or explanation into the texts, are ideal for the purposes of an anthology such as this.

Margaret Orbell’s position in the middle of this process has not been an easy one: we are grateful for her commitment and for her fine attention to detail.

The contemporary material was assembled largely through personal contacts. The difference between this process and that of selecting English texts from library reading is an obvious indicator of the difficulties of translating context. Inevitably there were compositions, for example by Wi Te Tau Huata of Hastings, which were too deeply imbedded in their location and in their oral or dramatic context to survive the damage of translation. Other contemporary compositions, for example Pita Sharples’ waiata-a-ringa ‘Te mihini ãtea’, (see p. 438), make the transition at the expense of the loss of the drama, humour and subtlety of their performance.

Translations and notes for material after 1900 have been variously provided. In general, composers’ translations have been preferred.

We have decided to do without a short glossary of Maori terms. Since most of the words that might appear there would be familiar in New Zealand, the inclusion of such a glossary seems at best irrelevant. There are now several good dictionaries; if you don’t know a word, look it up – you may find out more about context that way than by flipping through a kind of tourist phrase-book at the end of this anthology.


That there are contemporary Maori compositions whose ‘publication’ normally consists of their being known literally ‘by heart’ reminds us of how little poetry we have in English that achieves an equivalent ‘folk’ quality. Certainly there are no poets whose work has the immensely familiar range of Tuini Ngawai’s; while most schoolchildren in New Zealand learn some version or other of ‘Põkarekare ana’ (see p. 105), few will ever know that Paraire Tomoana composed it; if you wish to indicate your location within Ngati Kahungunu, you have only to stand up and sing Tomoana’s ‘E pari rã’ (see p. 106); Kohine Ponika’s ‘Karanga! Karanga!’ (see p. 259) is as permanently published in song-memory as any stock anthology poem; Pita Sharples’ ‘Te mihini ãtea’ was being sung around the Tomoana showgrounds soon after its performance by Te Roopu Manutaki at the 1983 Polynesian Festival in Hastings.

The anthologist who goes hunting for English equivalents to these will mostly be disappointed. Although we tried to avoid a too exclusively literary selection, we have therefore been sparing in representing so-called ‘popular’ poetry. We disagreed with Allen Curnow’s judgement of William Pember Reeves’s ‘The Passing of the Forest’ as ‘beneath him’ (Introduction to The Penguin Book of New Zealand Verse, 1960, p. 36). David McKee Wright we find well worth preserving. ‘Historic’ folk material such as ‘Covered Wagons’, commemorating the use of scab labour in the 1951 Waterfront Dispute, doesn’t survive into print.

Of the poets writing from the working movement, Henry Kirk (‘The Mixer’) (see p. 153) is the most notable; he pushes his poems and songs well past the limits of conventions that braked Harry Holland, for example, short of anything better than pious apostrophisings of the ‘Red Dawn’, or the good socialist intentions which Peter Fraser diverted to feeble verses. It is worth noting that these politician poètes-manquées both display advanced symptoms of what might be called ‘telephone voice’, whereas the unapologetic language of ‘The Mixer’, in particular, relishes its frequent literary references and pastiches without unease or condescension – and without what Eileen Duggan, in ‘Shades of Maro of Toulouse’ skewered with three annihilating lines of which the first contains an ironic miniature of the awkwardness of ‘telephone voice’:

There is somewhat which flatters,
Which sends the thumbs to the armpits
In this role of dialectical defender.

(More Poems, Allen and Unwin, London 1951)

One of these days someone will resurrect and translate all the Serbo-Croat poems of Ante Kosovic (see p. 132); here we offer a reminding example. James K. Baxter’s ‘Ballad of the Stonegut Sugar Works’ (see p. 339) is included less as a sample of his work than as a sample of the satirical ballad, which he happened to write brilliantly. The claims made for Denis Glover as a popular poet are probably better matched in the work of a painter such as Russell Clark than in poetry as it approaches folk-lyric. More recently, Sam Hunt, through tireless touring and reading, has achieved a popular folk standing which sometimes obscures the potential subtleties of his verse. David Mitchell publishes largely through reading. Alan Brunton, moving his poetry increasingly into theatre and cabaret scripts, was reaching large live audiences before his departure for New York.

The concept of a discrete ‘folk poetry’ is, however, misleading. We hope that this anthology gives a sense of the integrated levels at which poetry in New Zealand works. Too bad there isn’t room for the unintentional hits scored by the likes of Dr A.S. Thompson, MD, Surgeon-Major 58th Regiment, in the 1850s, in his officers’ mess attempt to pastiche Maori oratory:

I am going to Auckland to-morrow,
The abode of the Pakehas,
The place tobacco and blankets are sold;
Where the governor and the soldiers live,
Where the prison stands,
Where the large ships lie,
The fire boats are seen,
Where men are hung;
To-morrow I shall go to Auckland.

(Thompson, The Story of New Zealand, 1859, vol. 1, p. 84)

– or for samples of the kind of ‘popular’ rubbish penned by the likes of Martin Farquhar Tupper, DCL (1810-1889), graduate of Christ Church, Oxford:

Like a Queen of swarming bees,
England, hived amid the seas,
Sends you by a favouring breeze,
Canterbury pilgrims.

(No. 4, Canterbury Papers, 1850)

Both quotations are from Horace Fildes, Fugitive Verse of Early New Zealand, manuscript notebook, Rare Books, Victoria University Library.



Obviously the greatest pressure on selection came from the need to accommodate a further highly-productive and varied twenty years’ writing since The Penguin Book of New Zealand Verse of 1960. In doing this it became obvious that there was a need for a comprehensive anthology of contemporary poetry in New Zealand. What we have done here, however, is to condense and redefine the period dealt with by Allen Curnow, and to give as generous a selection as possible of the poetry written since then. In several cases (Curnow, Smithyman, Baxter and Alistair Campbell, for example) this has resulted in an emphasis on later work. This result, which was not planned in advance, seems to us satisfactory, and consistent with our method as it emerged from reading.

Not all poets are best represented by matching quantities of pages and/or poems. Poets such as C.K. Stead who have often worked with longer, closely-integrated forms cannot, with the best will in the world, adequately survive their ‘translation’ into anthologies like this. On the other hand, it seemed essential to us to include complete longer poems by, for example, Robin Hyde, Kendrick Smithyman, and Alistair Campbell: there are poets who cannot be ‘heard’ without this scope. We have tried to weigh the proclivities of the poet with the need to represent the poetry fairly, and with the coherence of the book as a whole. We have also tried to be generous with space; future anthologists of New Zealand poetry will find this increasingly difficult.

The ‘structural line’ of women poets spoken of earlier, from Blanche Baughan through Gloria Rawlinson, was profoundly altered by the early death of Robin Hyde in 1939; the progression into self-sufficient reticence of Gloria Rawlinson during the 1950s; the silence of Mary Stanley after the publication of her one book, Starveling Year, in 1953; by the tragically early death of Hilaire Kirkland in 1975. The larger implications of this damage, together with the failure of commonplace criticism to see past the Georgian surface of Eileen Duggan’s poetry, for example, needs to be examined in the full context of a ‘New Zealand poetry’ where male hegemony had achieved the dubious status of orthodoxy. We have tried to offer selections that would make such examination possible.

In the parallel context of composition in Maori in the twentieth century, the immense contributions of women composer-teachers are obvious: Te Puea Herangi, Tuini Ngawai, Kohine Ponika, Ngoi Pewhairangi, Merimeri Penfold and Te Aomuhurangi Te Maaka, for example, have nurtured a tradition that embraces Arapera Blank and Katerina Mataira and the emerging bilingualism of Keri Hulme.

These selections allow cross-references and comparisons for which we should be grateful: tradition can be various as well as structured. I like to ‘hear’ Tuini Ngawai next to Charles Spear’s medallions of decadent endgame; to read the certainty of Arapeta Awatere’s language next to the doubt of Allen Curnow’s ‘House and Land’. I never did much warm to the terms of Charles Brasch’s approving estimation of Allen Curnow’s 1945 Caxton anthology, A Book of New Zealand Verse 1923-1945 as ‘a hard frost’ (Indirections: a Memoir 1909-1947, OUP 1980, p. 391: ‘Like a hard frost, it killed off weeds, and promoted sound growth’). Mere survival isn’t everything, any more than good posture is.


Independently of each other, Harvey McQueen and I read everything, and made our own large preliminary selections. Where these coincided, we often had workable short lists; otherwise, collective bargaining took place. Our relationship was cordial, and our co-operation made us think twice, as often as it pushed us to defend our certainties.

We wished to include some poems by Alan Loney; unfortunately this could not be arranged.

Our thanks are due to the librarians of the Wellington Public Library, the General Assembly Library, the Alexander Turnbull Library, the Victoria University Library and J.C. Beaglehole rare books collection, and the Auckland Public Library, Rare Books and Sir George Grey collections.

For help and advice with ‘folk’ material we are indebted in particular to Noel Hilliard, Rona Bailey, and Bert Roth.

We are grateful to the Literary Fund and the Lottery Board, who were able to buy us some reading time.

Finally, we thank our editor at Penguin Books, John Barnett, for his support, industry, and scholarship.


Last updated 25 February, 2002