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Unsettling Settlement: Poetry and Nationalism in Aotearoa / New Zealand.

Alex Calder

Originally published in Brook Thomas, ed., REAL: Yearbook of Research in English and American Literature 14, Literature and the Nation (Tűbingen: Gunter Narr Verlag, 1998): 165-81.

And whatever islands may be
Under or over the sea,
It is something different, something
Nobody counted on.
                                Allen Curnow, “The Unhistoric Story.”

As recently, or as long ago, as 1945, Allen Curnow wrote: “Strictly speaking, New Zealand doesn’t exist yet, though some possible New Zealands glimmer in some poems and on some canvasses. It remains to be created—should I say invented—by writers, musicians, artists, architects, publishers; even a politician might help—and how many generations does that take?” (“A Dialogue” 77). Two generations later, let me imagine some ways this nationalist challenge might be answered now. If I were talking to a musician or a film-maker, I might be told that the situation Curnow complained of hasn’t altered much. New Zealand barely exists on our radio play lists, on our television screens, in our cinemas, and we are impoverished in not finding ourselves in mirrors of our own making. If I were talking to a politician or an arts bureaucrat, I would no doubt be reminded of the cost structures of local broadcasting, but I would also be told that the imperative behind Curnow’s question remains a key plank in government policy—it is not quite for nothing that our funding agency for the arts is called “Creative New Zealand.” But it would not be at all difficult to find people who would object (with something like ruffled national pride) to the very terms of Curnow’s question. We’re an old country, with a thousand years of human habitation; nor as a modern nation are we new, for what we have come to call our “founding document,” The Treaty of Waitangi, was signed between Maori and representatives of the Crown in 1840. From this perspective, the very idea of needing to “invent” New Zealand, as if from scratch, all these years later, might seem to disavow aspects of our colonial past, a history that needs to be faced if we are to emerge as a bicultural nation. From a narrower literary point of view, someone might note that it was Allen Curnow who, as our leading poet and editor of several canon-making anthologies, set himself the task of “inventing” New Zealand literature along cultural nationalist lines. His project characterizes a necessary phase of self-definition and self-discovery in our literature—from the 1930s through to the 1950s—but it is a phase that is over. We are now free to put nationalism behind us, to write less insistently as New Zealanders and more confidently as writers whose cosmopolitan affiliations—to feminism, to “language” poetry, to the postcolonial novel, for example—compound any simple identification of self with nation. Then again, someone else might reply that New Zealand is place where nationalism still makes sense. If you jettison the nation as a primary unit of memory and affiliation, you lose purchase on the most pressing debates of our time: what we make of relations between Maori, Pakeha, [1] and newer immigrants, what we make of the constitutional, judicial, and economic implications of a Treaty which cedes sovereignty in one language and withholds it in another,[2] necessarily involves us in imagining what kind of nation we should be. From this perspective, we could say it takes any number of generations to “invent” New Zealand, because invention is always a form of renovation, always (as my epigraph hints) a matter of adjusting familiar national identities in the light of “something different, something nobody counted on.”

I haven’t had to look far to imagine these responses. They are all aspects of my own relation to nationalism and literature in New Zealand, a connection that, for me anyway, has the character of a complex inheritance I can only grasp in relation to our distinctive history of settlement, to global flows of capital and information, to the formation and revision of canons, and to the local reception of international artistic and intellectual discourse. In what follows, I would like to address these issues by way of a selective history of New Zealand literary nationalism. The territory that might have been covered is vast; lest this essay degenerate into a mere reading list, I have selected a handful of representative texts and focused particularly on the poetics informing the production of our major anthologies. These have been especially important in guiding our discussions not only of nationalism and literature, but of nationalism and cultural practices generally. However, it should be said that I am neither proposing an intervention in local debates, nor seeking to promote the literary fruits of Kiwis in a European marketplace. Rather, I am writing on the chance that readers from elsewhere may find the New Zealand experience of nationalism usefully distinct from their own and, to this extent, potentially informative for discussions of nations and their multi-cultures taking different forms elsewhere.

1.     Emergent Nationalism

In 1890, Pakeha New Zealanders celebrated the fiftieth birthday of their new nation. Thomas Bracken, hitching his star to the anniversary, published a hefty volume of verse, luxuriously bound in half-Morocco and gold, entitled Musings in Maoriland. The work is dedicated, “with the sincere admiration of the author” (iii), to Alfred Lord Tennyson—the salute of one national poet to another. Bracken also persuaded Sir Robert Stout, a lawyer, intellectual, and leading politician of the day, to contribute an essay on “The Rise and Progress of New Zealand” by way of introduction, and wheedled a preface out of the country’s most distinguished elder statesman, Sir George Grey. Bracken’s verse is famously undistinguished but the volume as a whole is of considerable interest as a compendium of myths of settlement. As early as 1890, these find expression in terms of nation rather than empire. Not that the distinction is always clear-cut: in “The Canterbury Pilgrims,” for example, Bracken celebrates the “pilgrims” who founded the province of Canterbury in the South Island. “With them a fairer England grew / ‘Neath speckless skies of sunny blue” (85). Elsewhere, the emphasis is on a transformed rather than transplanted England. As Grey put it: “Every country should have its distinctive character faithfully expressed in a literature which is a reflex of the land in which it had its birth” (21). This distinctive character is not British. The colonists, Stout notes,

necessarily took many of elements of their social life—part of the social medium or environment—with them. But a new life and a new environment had to be built up. New Zealand was not to become merely “a bit of England” amidst a Polynesian population. In time it would develop its own national life—its own peculiarities—its characteristic social organisation, and like a living organism, it had first to look after mere existence (3). 

In this account, settlement is at first a tender plant, it then flourishes in a practical way, and literature eventually follows on, as a late flowering of the project of nation building. The precedent is explicitly American: “The first poems and the first tales, like the beginnings of American literature, were English. There was little distinctively of New Zealand in them. Local colouring was rare . . . The United States is now getting a distinctive literature—Cooper, Bret Harte, Cradock, Clements, Whitman, are thoroughly American” (16-17). But, in 1890, it seemed local writers were not as thoroughly New Zealanders. Bracken is hailed as a pioneer, as one of the fortunate few “who occupy the vantage ground of being the first in this new field so rich in all elements which produce and foster poetry” (23). Stout and Grey regard Bracken’s verse, and imagine the prospect of a New Zealand literature in much the same way as a traveler, surmounting the brow of a hill, might imagine the future city that will one day be built on the site of a small clearing. In Grey’s prediction, this national literature will be influenced “by the nature of the country and the character of the native people with whom the early settlers came in contact”: 

The more stubborn the conflict of races may have been, and the more trying the struggles undergone by the early settlers, the sterner and more earnest, even sometimes more melancholy the character of the national literature is to become. In the case of New Zealand, the scenery in which so many early disasters and heart-breaking toils were undergone, was often weird-like and surpassingly grand, and at other times of unusual beauty and softness. The savage fierceness of the natives was also frequently tempered with a knightly generosity, fidelity, and honorable bearing, which are not often surpassed. Thus all the elements appear to be here combined, which may originate and mature a literature . . . (22). 

Beautiful scenery and Maori people: the two go hand in hand, as it were, and are the very badge of congratulatory Pakeha nationalism even today. In 1890, however, Maori were regarded as a dying race. As such, they were an opportune subject for painterly and literary commemoration and Bracken is only one of many whose more ambitious works most often involve Maori subject matter. In this respect, his model is less Tennyson than Sir Walter Scott’s tartan minstrelsy. The poems incorporate supposedly traditional forms of haka[3] and waiata, [4] and are, without exception, set either in the romantic past of “Maoriland” (beautiful maidens, noble youths, cruel chiefs. . . ) or the recent past of the land wars. A note to “Orakau,” for example, reminds the reader that in this battle of 1864, 1,700 colonial and imperial troops were massed against some 300 Maori, including women and children, “gathered together to defend the land / from the encroachments of the Pakeha” (161). This version of history—settlement founded on “encroachment,” on injustice—is not an obstacle to New Zealand nationalism, but an enabling and enduring feature of it. The poem ends: 

With wild, untutored chivalry the rebels scorn’d disgrace,—
Oh, never in the annals of the most heroic race
Was bravery recorded more noble or more high,
Than that displayed at Orakau in Rewi’s fierce reply—
                             “Ka Whawahi tonu! Ake! Ake! Ake!” (165)

“We will fight forever, and ever, and ever!” While Maori have indeed continued to do so, [5] Bracken can admire Rewi’s gallant sentiment in his confidence that the battle is over and won. The Pakeha land-grab was indeed an encroachment but, in Bracken’s poem, these shabby proceedings are embellished by the chivalry and bravery of a vanquished race, a worthy foe. Remembering the “rebels” in a heroic pose assists a more active forgetting: military resistance of Maori at Orakau and elsewhere would excuse the large scale and indiscriminate confiscation of land. In New Zealand, forms of nationalism would continue to operate under this double injunction: to forget the past even as we seek to remember its wrongs.[6] 

2. Critical Nationalism 

Allen Curnow edited and introduced three anthologies of New Zealand poetry between 1945 and 1960. I suppose any anthology worth making will occasion debates over who is in and who is out; a smaller number have the character of a polemic or manifesto that can set the terms of literary discussion for decades, others may be substantial works of literary theory. Curnow’s anthologies have all these qualities, and the forty page introduction to last of them, The Penguin Book of New Zealand Verse (1960), is the most important statement about nationalism that we have.[7] You can see that it is a curious nationalism in his choice of three epigraphs: one, from Gulliver’s Travels, invites us to consider New Zealand as an island floating in the air; another, from Yeats, asserts, “one can only reach out to the universe with a gloved hand—that glove is one’s nation, the only thing one knows even a little of”; a third, from a Katherine Mansfield short story, notes that “there is no twilight in our New Zealand days, but a curious half-hour, when everything appears grotesque—it frightens—as though the savage spirit of the country walked abroad and sneered at what it saw” (16).[8] There is surreal quality about each of these epigraphs. Together, they invite us to regard New Zealand in an unfamiliar light, not quite the nation as home, but as if something close to home was a source or zone of uncanny effects.

The introduction proper begins with a disclaimer and a correction:

New Zealand is not hoisted here at the masthead of a distinct verse tradition; neither does it designate a mere platform upon which some poets are assembled, the better to be seen. In making a first really comprehensive anthology of my country’s verse, I have found myself piecing together the record of an adventure, or series of adventures, in search of reality—of which New Zealand has been the scene, containing the deserts and dragons as well as the forests and fountains and fine prospects. Reality must be local and special at the point where we pick up the traces: as manifold as the signs we follow and the routes we take. Whatever is true vision belongs, here, uniquely to the islands of New Zealand. The best of our verse is marked or moulded everywhere by peculiar pressures—pressures arising from the isolation of the country, its physical character, and its history (17).

“New Zealand,” not itself real, is the necessary context in which a search for reality takes place. And whatever reality may be, we are to understand that its address is at once local and difficult to locate. “True vision” is required, and the grail has not been disclosed to all. Curnow adds: “Difference and vision are words that I shall use quite often. I mean, in the simplest way, that these poets at their best see differently, and see different things, from others” (18). These are not the given differences (of scenery, of “local colour”) that Bracken, Stout and Grey were confident would ground a national literature. On the contrary, “It is not by harping on what is native, indigenous, insular, that any of these songs are news” (18). This modernist poetic, opposing convention and reality, sight and insight, habit and innovation, expectation and surprise, is licensed locally through Curnow’s diagnosis of the failure of colonial New Zealand poetry. “The nineteenth-century colonists achieved their migration bodily, but not in spirit,” he writes. “The shock of so distant a migration, and the recoil of the imagination from realities, were to be transmitted through two, three, even four New Zealand generations before poets appeared who could express what it meant to be or to become a New Zealander” (20).

If I am to generalize about Curnow’s generalizations concerning what it did mean to be or to become a New Zealander (as expressed in the work of our first “real” poets of the twenties and thirties), I might begin by noting that words like “shock,” “unease,” “loss,” and “isolation” appear in context as terms of approbation. Colonial poets believed they had laid the foundations of a national literature, their successors found a legacy not worth inheriting. The “vital discovery of country in self and self in country” (21) had to be made again, and made more certainly this time. It is as if tough-minded acts of looking and looking back were a remedial rite of passage that somehow reacquainted the modern poet with an inaugural dislocation that had not been adequately registered in colonial verse. If migration ought to have led to an identity crisis rather than to colonial complacency, then poets of the 1930s or 40s produced those crises as a kind of belated couvade. Here is Curnow, in the third of the sonnets entitled “Attitudes for a New Zealand Poet,” meditating on the skeleton of a large extinct bird, the moa, as exhibited in the Canterbury Museum, Christchurch. 

The skeleton of the moa on iron crutches
Broods over no great waste; a private swamp
Was where this tree grew feathers once, that hatches
Its dusty clutch, and guards them from the damp. 

Interesting failure to adapt on islands,
Taller but not more fallen than I, who come
Bone to his bone, peculiarly New Zealand’s.
The eyes of children flicker round this tomb 

Under the skylights, wonder at the huge egg
Found in a thousand pieces, pieced together
But with less patience than the bones that dug
In time deep shelter against ocean weather. 

Not I, some child, born in a marvellous year,
Will learn the trick of standing upright here (205).

Settlement has become unsettlement. The poet, wishing to right himself on this side of the world, identifies “bone to bone” with this outsized evolutionary flop in order to suggest the sterility of a culture that has adapted to these islands in superficial ways only. “We have prospered greatly,” wrote A. R. D. Fairburn in Dominion:

we, the destined race, rulers of conquered isles,
sprouting like bulbs in warm darkness, putting out
white shoots under the wet sack of Empire (147).

Critical nationalism is disenchanted with the legacies of colonialism and troubled because “the intimacy of the land we inhabit has yet to be learned” (51). These are the two deepest impulses of the public poetry of this period, and they are apt to contradict each other. In Charles Brasch’s “The Silent Land,”

. . . The plains are nameless and the cities cry for meaning,
The unproved heart still seeks a vein of speech
Beside the sprawling rivers, in the stunted township,
By the pine windbreak where the hot wind bleeds (183).

Brasch’s silent land lacks an overlay of myth and story connecting a people to a place. It seems a stark, inhospitable environment, where even an image suggesting shelter—the pine windbreak—is linked to a suffocating image: “the hot wind bleeds.” The remedy?

Man must lie with the gaunt hills like a lover,
Earning their intimacy in the calm sigh
Of a century of quiet and assiduity,
Discovering what solitude has meant
Before our headlong time broke on these waters,
And in himself unite time’s dual order;
For he both to the swift and slow belongs,
Formed for a hard and complex history (183).

The implication is that New Zealanders will never intimately know their country unless they change their attitudes to the land. The headlong rhythms of exploitative agriculture, commerce and industry have to adapt to the slower rhythms of nature, and so unite two orders of time, the human and the ecological, in this one place. Then the land will truly have become home.

So relenting, earth will tame her tamer,
And speak with all her voices tenderly
To seal his homecoming to the world. Ah then
For him the Oreads will haunt the fields near the snowline. . . (183).

Oreads? I believe they are sort of Greek mountain nymph, and their little trills remind us that searches for identity are often conducted in gendered terms: the land is female, the human who comes to master and be mastered by it is male. In terms of Curnow’s anthology introduction, one might say that it takes penetrating vision to close the gap between convention and reality—a gap, of course, that is never “really” there. But Brasch’s “Oreads” also duplicate all those earlier moments in colonial history where a European name displaces not just an existing Maori name, but that complex, richly textured oral grid through which the land is always already known.

I choose this rather corny poem as a stark illustration of how critical nationalism, in its search for a deeper relation of settler to place, often repeats colonial patterns it otherwise condemns. More common, perhaps, is a not altogether different move. Another Brasch poem, “Forerunners,” ends:

. . . . Behind our quickness, our shallow occupation of the easier
Landscape, their unprotesting memory
Mildly hovers, surrounding us with perspective,
Offering soil for our rootless behaviour (181).

Maori identity is the bolster of an unsettled New Zealand identity. Its unspecifiable plenitude (“surrounding us with perspective”) grants an emergent Pakeha identity the handsome promise of a lack fulfilled, but only on condition that Maori are lost from history as an “unprotesting memory,” and that the processes of settlement are mis-remembered as a “shallow occupation.”

The Penguin Book of New Zealand Verse (1960) is the first such anthology to include Maori material in English translation, but that inclusion is hedged about with symptomatic qualifications and exclusions. Seven translations, grouped under the heading “Maori Poetry,” open a volume which elsewhere orders individual poets according to their date of birth. In his introduction, Curnow writes: “Distinct as they are, as we should all wish to see them, the Maori poems nevertheless represent a significant part of our commonly diffused consciousness of ourselves as New Zealanders. I think both races will recognize the propriety of including them, for the first time, in a New Zealand anthology” (20), This easy, if faintly patronizing gesture towards the “propriety” of inclusion, is itself compromised by the presence of a separate introductory “Note on New Zealand Verse and the Maori Tradition” (68-77). [9] A first section offers what then seemed a necessary local guide to Maori pronunciation, as it is introduced by two paragraphs awkwardly steering a course between disliking “pedantic attempts at correctness” (68), defending everyday mispronunciations which have become part of New Zealand English, and recommending that monolingual New Zealanders ought to have a greater consciousness of linguistic differences. A lengthy second section, “Pakeha Bards and Maori Scholars” (69-75) examines how and why Maori oral tradition came to be written down and translated, and offers a critical account of the representation of Maori in the colonial poetry of Bracken, Domett and others. “Two generations of enthusiasts all abusing Maori matter in much the same spirit,” writes Curnow, “were more than enough to discredit the whole enterprise” (75). Those writers failed to reconcile European and Maori literary traditions and, suggests Curnow, “they could not have failed better” (75). But what stands in their place? Curnow hesitates even to guess, and the introduction moves to a third section, offering notes on the sources and genre of the poems included in the anthology. We learn here, and only here, the authors and/or tribal affiliations of individual works, and learn too, that while previous translations, including those by the great Maori scholar, Apirana Ngata, “possess occasional charm and some accent of authority,” they “. . . have often been handicapped by . . . notions of a suitably ‘poetical’ English idiom” (75). In these circumstances, Curnow has quietly played Pound to Ngata’s Fenollosa. It seems to me that it would be hard not to prefer his “improved” translations on purely poetic grounds, harder still, in retrospect, to maintain those grounds are the grounds that apply.

Curnow sees that it is essential to acknowledge a vital Maori component in the formation of New Zealand literary nationalism, and to revisit the terms of its “inclusion.” But, in 1960, Maori literature is not a living component so much as a separate wing in the national museum, curated by Pakeha, who may be embarrassed by their colonial ancestors, but who resemble them in the vigor with which they blow dust from treasures from the past.

3. Sidelining the Nation

The back cover of the 1985 Penguin Book of New Zealand Verse, edited by Ian Wedde and Harvey McQueen, has the following blurb.

We are not anywhere, but somewhere. The context of where we are is defined in this anthology by traditions conveyed in the Maori language, and by a complete re-reading of “New Zealand poetry.”

The relation of the 1985 anthology to its predecessors is further suggested by a photographic detail, showing a set of railway points—a lever thrown in order to change tracks. For my present purposes, the interest of this volume, and Wedde’s various writings about it,[10] is an implication that switches have been pulled when “New Zealand poetry” appears under quote marks, and that we may require terms other than those of identity and nation to conceive our relation to a place that is “not anywhere, but somewhere.”

The major feature distinguishing this anthology from all others is the extent of material from Maori, making about 20% of the whole, included both in the original and in translation, and supported by discrete contextual notes. A large selection of traditional and transitional oral literature opens the volume, and contemporary composition in Maori is interleaved with poetry written in English by both Maori and Pakeha poets. “The need for Maori content,” writes Wedde, “was obvious and problematical” (45). Problematical, in that it involved specific processes of consultation, permission, and representation (tribal and generic) that would not obtain in an English language anthology, as well as problems involving the propriety of translation: the selected material had to survive the losses of translation in a manner that preserved the different complexities of an oral literature while remaining accessible to the general reader. The need for Maori content was “obvious” in ways that do indeed resist summary, but might be semaphored by saying that New Zealand was a more Maori place in 1985 than in 1960. In demographic terms, the number of people identifying as Maori had doubled to around 12% of the total population; a major internal migration had seen Maori move from the country to the city where, among severe cultural and social dislocations, they were disproportionally numbered as casualties of a failing economy; the myth of a New Zealand enjoying the best race relations in the world had been shattered; there were widespread protests over land issues and calls for Maori sovereignty; a renaissance in Maori cultural activity was gathering momentum; the official government line was no longer assimilation or integration, but the new policy of biculturalism; underpinning the latter, and potentially the most far-reaching of all, The Treaty of Waitangi, in both its English and Maori versions, was to be regarded as a founding document requiring “partnership” in all areas, and the scope of the Waitangi Tribunal, formed to address current derelictions of the Treaty, was granted retrospective power to make recommendations on injustices dating back to 1840. It might also be noted in passing that the mid-1980s are a highwater mark for popular New Zealand nationalism, stimulated largely by outrage at French terrorism and the hostile response of other former allies to the Labour government’s crusading anti-nuclear stance. It would be too simple to say that the 1985 Penguin “reflected” these developments. The editorial stance is localist but anti-nationalist and Wedde is careful to distinguish the anthology’s “biculturalism” from official versions.

Yet it is not an easy matter to distinguish a commitment to location from the commitment to nation it so nearly resembles. Wedde’s introduction begins: “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” (23).Like Curnow, Wedde understands location not just in terms of place, but as a nexus of relations—historical, cultural, geo-political, in short, the full set of relations that obtain. In broad terms, Wedde maps the development of New Zealand poetry in English through three phases: a hieratic literary language untuned to its location in colonial times gives way, in the thirties and forties, to a hieratic language with a willed relation to location, which in turn gives rise to a literary language that, since the sixties, is now rather more demotic than hieratic.[11] This strikes me more as an updating than a revision of Curnow’s themes. This renovation participates, as Wedde himself points out, in wider modernist-postmodernist changes in poetry, but remains centered on its location “to the point where we can feel ourselves to be its original poets, its consummators” (29). Once again the story seems to be the cultivation of an “intimacy,” if not quite with Brasch’s gaunt hills, then with the location in which one finds oneself.

Even so, Wedde does not regard the development of New Zealand poetry in teleological or identitarian terms. New Zealand poetry is “a process, not a national condition” (29), and the story he tells is distinctly not told as a narrative of “improvement.”[12] This means that quality control, of vital concern to Curnow, whose editing has been likened to a hard frost, is of less interest to Wedde, whose selections are guided by a broad feel for cultural history, and a concern for marginal poetries (such as women’s religious verse) repugnant to modernist regimes of good taste. It also supposes a critical relation to all those founding myths that are predicated on the idea of the nation as the accomplishment of civilizing improvements, as well as to more recent settler forms of memory which, “if they don’t quite have the gall to say that the end justifies the means, usually manage to imply that the end has made the means irrelevant” (“Checking Out the Foundations” 62).

This is why the inclusion of material in Maori is so important to Wedde’s sense of his anthology’s role. A discourse founded on improvement and its cognates gives way in his introduction to a discourse founded on translation and its cognates: translocation, transaction, transposition, all those words that stress the difference a shift in context or medium can make. It is here that Wedde’s poetics quietly offers a useful contrast to what I have called official biculturalism. The latter, like Curnow’s gesture towards a homogenous entity called “Maori Poetry,” is inclined to generalize difference, the former particularizes it.[13]

Though Wedde would prefer not to use the term, it seems to me that his anthology is nationalist in an exemplary sense. Location, even defined in non-essentialist and non-programmatic ways, would not be perceptible as a location if it were not for the overlay of a complex set of grids identifying this place, these peoples, these histories, as a nation. But nationalism, as Anthony Appiah has said of patriotism, need not be the enemy of cosmopolitanism (175), just as biculturalism is not a “two-peoples-only” alternative to multiculturalism, but a local variant of it. But I would seriously mislead readers if I left them with the impression that Wedde and McQueen’s anthology has gathered the mainstream of literary opinion behind it. Some objected to the inclusion of material in Maori, [14] just as they had objected (successfully) to a new secondary school curriculum, emphasizing “relevant” New Zealand literature at the expense of the canon (excepting Shakespeare) and requiring comparative study of the Maori language as a means of teaching English language. My own impression (restricted largely to a parochial sense of what English departments other than my own teach) is that the anthology, though widely used in classrooms and lecture theaters, was not used in a new way, that Waiata, even in translation, were invisible to most teachers if not also to most readers.

4. That old thing? Nationalism, 1997.

The most recent of our national anthologies is the 1997 Oxford, edited by Jenny Bornholdt, Gregory O’Brien, and Mark Williams. It is national only in the limited sense of hoping to capture a national market. To this end, the publishers sent out a circular canvassing the opinions of university and school teachers of English as to their favorite poems and poets. I am not sure how much influence this actually had on the selection and arrangement of contents (I refused to vote), but the result prompts an instructive, if discouraging, comparison with its predecessors. The editors have refused any critical agenda whatsoever, beyond that of recognizing diversity and not including poems “unless they have some interest to us as poetry” (xxxv). Where Curnow and Wedde invited us to view a body of literature differently, the new editorial board offers the novelty of viewing history backwards—the book’s gimmick is that younger poets precede their elders.

But the 1997 Oxford, as much as its predecessors, is also the product of American trends. In this case, the influence comes not by way of modernism or postmodernism or any intellectual position per se, but by way of well-known debates over canons and diversity. Curnow’s rigorously selected anthology had been a conspicuous (and proper) target for feminist revisions of the canon[15]; his preferences and faint praises were disputed in Wedde and McQueen’s Penguin anthology, and are reiterated in the Oxford, which identifies the formation of an earlier canon with “nationalistic bias . . . secular prejudice and male mythologising” (xxv). But what is the effect of “opening” the canon? One result is that pretty much anyone who had begun to publish volumes of verse in the 1980s has a right of representation in the new anthology. Another is that older poets, still writing, tend to be trapped in canonical poses, as the volume’s commitment to recently published writers means there is little room for new work by established poets that might alter the picture we have of them. Opening the canon to a “rich diversity” of new voices also means that material written in Maori has had to be excluded; instead, the editors “have sought to recognise the strength of Maori poetry written in English and to capture the different ways it deals with and addresses its world” (xxxii). They then quote, by way of example, these lines from Hone Tuwhare:

Gissa smile Sun, giss yr best
good mawnin’ one, fresh ‘n cool like 

yore still comin’—still
half in an’ half outa the lan’scape (xxxii).

And there is no more to be said, just a recommendation to consult Witi Ihimaera’s six volume anthology of recent writing by Maori, Te Ao Marama, for those wanting “a broader picture” of contemporary Maori poetry. It seems unlikely that Tuwhare’s lines have anything to do with “different ways of dealing with and addressing the world” unless, that is, one supposes that Kiwi diction and a sunny disposition are what constitute Maori difference.

The woolly pluralism of the Oxford anthology instances weaknesses John Guillory has identified in American debates over the canon. He argues that a naive realist understanding of representation (the more representative the truer) underlies multiculturalist revisions of the canon, which is one reason why the heralded new diversity is apt to resemble the same old thing. Moreover, both traditionalists and revisionists misconceive the debate, he suggests, by identifying canons with texts rather than the practices of institutions. A canon is how as well as what we teach, a nation is how we belong as well as what we belong to. In this respect, it seems to me that excluding considerations of translation from an anthology of New Zealand poetry has done this canon, this nation, no service whatsoever.

But I hate to end on a dour, unpatriotic note. The shortcomings of the 1997 Oxford anthology also have something to do with the gradual decline in the prestige or sway that poetry, once first in our arts, has had since the eighties. There are important individual exceptions, of course, but it seems to me that in the 1980s, the key genres that addressed us nationally were the historical novel [16] and, more recently still, the development of a bicultural Maori drama through the 1990s.[17] This body of work comes largely out of one theater, Taki Rua, in Wellington, and leaves an Aucklander, like myself, feeling envious and deprived. I recently saw a touring production of Hone Kouka’s play Waiora, which I would like to describe briefly, as it suggests a number of positive contrasts to the Oxford anthology. The author invites us to consider his play as “not just a Maori story but an immigrant’s story. Something so many New Zealanders might be able to relate to—Scots, Chinese, German—all of us who have travelled from somewhere else” (8). It is set in 1965, and concerns a Maori family who have moved from their remote North Island home, Waiora, (literally, waters of life) to a city in the South Island, in search of what Ian Wedde might term “improvement.” The action takes place on a beach where the family gathers to celebrate a daughter’s birthday along with two Pakeha guests. The play explores the aspirations and disappointments and tensions of the family in a quasi-realist mode, but uses stylized forms of Maori ritual, song and haka to dramatize the continuing importance of this family’s connection to everything they have left or are in danger of leaving behind: their land, their dead, their language. The drama begins with the arrival of a group of their tipuna [18] (ancestors) on stage: they sing a waiata expressing the pain of leaving Waiora, and the rest of the cast soon joins them in a haka to the new city. The tipuna retire, but frequently return to the stage, invisible to the contemporary characters, but commenting on the action through gesture and song. This is a style of theater in which it is perfectly ordinary for ancestor or spirit figures to appear. In other genres, it is difficult to present images of gods, ancestors or spirits in a manner that doesn’t fatally recall Stephen Spielberg or Kevin Costner, but drama promotes a space for translation in which an audience cooperates in imagining life-worlds that may be remote from their own.[19] It is difficult to convey the power of this conjunction of cultures in performance, but a sketch of the last scene may give you an inkling.

Throughout the play, Rongo, the youngest daughter, apple of her father’s eye, has deeply mourned her grandmother and her dislocation from the place and values she once knew. Hone, her father, keenly anticipating a promotion at work, and anxiously congratulating himself on the decision to move, is unaware of her pain. At the play’s end, the daughter, answering the call of her tipuna, walks into the sea and drowns. She lies center stage, and as the family desperately try to revive her, the tipuna stamp, challenging and toying with the pull to life from her family. The sound builds, then is quiet, her spirit is with the tipuna. Her father, the would-be modern man, who has hitherto prohibited the speaking of Maori, strips off his shirt, and violently begins a haka of self-loathing and remorse; the tipuna then strike up a karanga, [20] calling the daughter to the world of the dead; at this point, the father, sensing their presence for the first time, changes his haka, directing it now against the tipuna who respond in kind, vigorously contending for the life of Rongo. One by one, other members of the family join him. Here are the author’s closing stage directions:

This cacophony continues until the hakas finish. Near the end of both hakas, RONGO slowly stands and begins a short haka of her own. She has heard her family. She has come back. The family have beaten the TIPUNA. The family freeze, looking down at where RONGO’s body was. RONGO then begins to sing “Tawhiti” [a waiata] as a farewell to the TIPUNA. Its beauty should pierce the air. The TIPUNA take over the waiata. LOUISE and STEVE [the Pakeha guests] remain back in disbelief.

The TIPUNA leave. HONE says a short karakia [prayer] to close the door behind them. All call ‘Tihei Mauri Ora!” to begin again.[21] The lights fade.

What has this to do with nationalism? In the scene I have described, not a word has been spoken in English. The play is an assertion of Maori pain and Maori identity. For Pakeha members of the audience, themselves the descendants of voyagers, it is there to be witnessed not appropriated. And yet, everyone is engaged. This was a bicultural and bilingual drama; much of the play was not immediately comprehensible by monolingual members of the audience, but it turned out that linguistic and cultural differences were not an insuperable obstacle. To some extent, part of the magic of this play was in reminding us that those differences were there, that they mattered, yet they had little to do with contemporary over-estimations of the force of cultural difference. Those boundaries were permeable, always had been, and though sections of the audience that night might have laughed with recognition in different places, it was nonetheless one audience, brought together in what Aristotle called pity and terror. That audience did not represent a current polity, not by a long shot, but was, perhaps, as good an image as any of what a nation might be.



[1] Pakeha is a term that is frequently given to that majority of New Zealanders, usually native born, usually of European descent, who do not consider themselves to be Maori.

[2] The Maori version of the Treaty cedes “kawanatanga” or governorship (kawana is a transliteration of governor) but guarantees to conserve “te tino rangatiratanga” (chiefly authority), which, from a Maori perspective, is arguably a retention of sovereignty. Issues relating to the Treaty are complex and have attracted a wide range of commentary in many fields. For an introduction, see Kawharu.

[3] A haka is a vigorous dance of assertion and challenge, performed in situations of encounter or confrontation. Someone of Bracken’s time would probably refer to it as a “war dance.” As I use the term frequently below, it might be noted that a haka involves rhythmic stamping, chanting, slapping, and facial distortions—a haka should seem loud, skilful, impressive, intimidating. Readers who follow rugby will know that the All Blacks (the New Zealand team) begin each test match with a haka.

[4] Waiata, or songs, form a major part of Maori oral literature. Orbell writes: “They . . . were usually sung publicly . . . to express the poet’s feelings, convey a message and sway the listeners’ emotions. Their language is often elaborate, with specialised and complex allusions. They were sung very slowly, with melodies in which endlessly inventive use was made of a small range of notes” (1).

[5] As detailed in Ranginui Walker’s history, Struggle Without End: Ka Whawhai Tonu Matou, which takes its title from this saying.

[6] Cf. Renan’s prophetic comment, in a lecture of 1882: “Forgetting, I would even go so far as to say historical error, is a crucial factor in the creation of a nation, which is why progress in historical studies often constitutes a danger for [the principle of] nationality” (45).

[7] Page references for quoted poems and introductory comments are to this edition. The introductions to Curnow’s anthologies, along with other pertinent essays, may also be found in a selection of his critical writings, Look Back Harder.

[8] The passage by Yeats comes from his Letters to the New Island; the Mansfield story is “The Woman at the Store.”

[9] That it is separate reflects the fact that it was written with the assistance of a scholar of Maori, Roger Oppenheim, whereas the introduction proper is the work of Curnow alone. This is beside the point I am making.

[10] See “Checking Out the Foundations: Editing The Penguin Book of New Zealand Verse,” in How to be Nowhere, 54-63.

[11] Wedde acknowledges a debt to the Canadian, Northrop Frye, for the contrast between hieratic and demotic. See Frye’s The Well-Tempered Critic. Indiana UP, 1963.

[12] See “Checking Out the Foundations,” 55-57.

[13] Wedde develops this contrast in “The Delft Effect,” How to be Nowhere, 303-6.

[14] C. K. Stead, in a thoughtful review, regarded the new Penguin, with its inclusion of material in Maori, as a symptom of pious liberalism—“a sort of good-boyism as crippling in its way as the old-boyism it has replaced” (145). Several Maori responses to the anthology are collected in Ihimaera, 329-326.

[15] For an excellent reappraisal of two earlier writers, see Leggott.

[16] Among the more important were Ian Wedde, Symmes Hole; Witi Ihimaera, The Matriarch; Maurice Shadbolt, Season of the Jew. Jane Campion’s film, The Piano, might also be noted in this context.

[17] For an introduction to recent Maori theatre, see Potiki.

[18] A note on the characters describes these ancestral figures as follows: “This group of four people are all Maori. They are there primarily to give more texture to mass scenes and also act as a metaphor for what the whanau [family] are leaving behind. This group in later scenes almost haunts the family. They should be dressed neutrally, close to the other characters. The main focus of them is Rongo; she is the reason they are at the hangi [feast].”

[19] I am indebted to the conversation of my colleague, Sebastian Black.

[20] A call of welcome, invitation, or mourning, usually sung out to visitors approaching a marae (meeting place).

[21] Literally, “the sneeze of life.” Frequently used in formal oratory, the phrase alludes to the first breath a baby takes, and is a salute to the principle of life.

Works Cited  

Appiah, Anthony. “Against National Culture.” Text and Nation. Eds. Peter C. Pfeiffer and Laura Garcia-Moreno. Columbia: Camden House, 1996. 175-190.

Bracken, Thomas. Musings in Maoriland. Dunedin, Wellington, and Sydney: Arthur T. Keirle, 1890.

Curnow, Allen, ed. The Penguin Book of New Zealand Verse. Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1960.

_____ . “The Unhistoric Story.” Collected Poems 1933-1973. Wellington: A. H. & A. W. Reed, 1974. 80.

_____ . Look Back Harder: Critical Writings 1935-1984. Ed. Peter Simpson. Auckland: Auckland UP, 1987.

_____ . “A Dialogue with Ngaio Marsh,” Look Back Harder, 76-82.

Guillory, John. Cultural Capital. Chicago: U of Chicago P, 1993.

Ihimaera, Witi, ed. Te Ao Marama 2. Auckland: Reed, 1993. 6 vols. 2: 329-326.

Kawharu, Hugh, ed. Waitangi: Maori and Pakeha Perspectives on the Treaty of Waitangi. Auckland: Oxford UP, 1989.

Leggott, Michele. “Opening the Archive: Robin Hyde, Eileen Duggan and the Persistence of Record.” Opening the Book. Eds. Mark Williams and Michele Leggott, Auckland: Auckland UP, 1985. 266-293.

Orbell, Margaret ed. Waiata: Maori Songs in History. Auckland: Reed, 1991.

Potiki, Roma. “A Maori Point of View: The Journey from Anxiety to Confidence.” Australasian Drama Studies 18 (1991): 57-63.

Renan, Ernest. “What is a Nation?” Becoming National: A Reader. Eds. Geoff Eley and Ronald Grigor Suny. New York and Oxford: Oxford UP, 1996. 42-55.

Stead, C. K. “At Home With the Poets,” Answering to the Language: Essays on Modern Writers. Auckland: Auckland UP, 1989. 133-45.

Walker, Ranginui. Struggle Without End: Ka Whawhai Tonu Matou, Auckland: Penguin 1990.

Wedde, Ian. How to be Nowhere: Essays and Texts 1971-1994. Wellington: Victoria UP, 1995.

Wedde, Ian, and Harvey McQueen, eds. The Penguin Book of New Zealand Verse. Auckland: Penguin, 1985.


©Alex Calder

Last updated 17 September, 2003