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Political Radicalism and Radical Literature: Usurpation and Incorporation in the New Zealand Literary World from 1969

Stephen Chan, lecturer in International Relations, University of Kent [1].

A condensed version of this paper was presented to the Silver Jubilee Triennial Conference of the Association for Commonwealth Literature and Language Studies, University of Kent, August 1989.


In 1986 I returned to New Zealand for a brief visit, after ten years of self-imposed exile. The son of refugees, the boat-people of 1939 who settled in New Zealand because the boat could go no further south, I was born there for reasons of politics and geography. Too far south for pursuit and, later, too isolated to understand the post-war world, the country was a cocoon surrounded by blue water. I left in 1976 to seek refuge from distance and naivety but, for the first five years of that exile, remembered only blue harbours, wondering if the polite suburbs of London could ever take their place. The problem was solved by the next five years in Africa where, amidst drought and war, harbours of water seemed a monstrous luxury. A basinful in the morning was a gift.

Returning was not traumatic, but so much seemed just as it was before and I, who had been away, might just as well have dreamt my adventures in dying lands for all the meaning they had in cities with swimming pools by the sea. To say, ‘over there’ meant so little that I began to internalise the fact of distance. An exile even at home, I realised I preferred the outside world. One day, Murray Edmond gave me a book of his poems and one of them, ‘Buddha’s Wife’, was so elegiac and expressive of my own feeling, I was glad to have purchased my ticket out (Murray Edmond, ‘Buddha’s Wife’ in End Wall, Auckland: Oxford UP, 1981). Why should any man endure such alienation in the land of his accidental birth? But the gesture of poetry recalled to me how greatly, as a young man, I had enjoyed the poetry of other young men. In a cupboard in New Zealand I had kept all their early published work, some of which I still think was almost brilliant and some, those I treasure most, which was determinedly, consciously rebellious and against the literary establishment of the day.

Not any more. They are the literary establishment of today. Some of them now write with an accomplished virtuosity which, in 1986, I found breathtaking. Probably the best example was Ian Wedde’s novel that year, Symmes Hole (Auckland: Penguin, 1986), which was reviewed so enthusiastically that the critics ran out of superlatives. One traced its line of descent: the stages of the New Zealand novel ran through an ‘oppressive countryside’, to a ‘fetid suburbia’ and, finally with Wedde, to the squalor and ‘nauseous claustrophobia’ of ‘the heartland of the city’ (Stephen Danby, ‘Wedde produces a Pacific epic’, New Zealand Sunday Times, 9 November, 1986). I’m not sure it’s that at all. It’s an attempt to locate New Zealand, an entire country with Wedde’s view of its entire history, in a capitalist and nuclear world, and I have said elsewhere that it fails (Stephen Chan, ‘Fast food, Paranoia and Politics: the New Zealand novel in 1986’, Kunapipi, vol. IX, No. 3, 1987). But the idea of literary stages, of progression away from the countryside, was used polemically by the younger Wedde’s poetic comrades, when they launched an assault in the late 1960s and early 1970s on what they took to be the deterministic provincialism of New Zealand poetry. It is that assault that concerns this essay. It is written from an accomplished distance but, in achieving that distance, carries with it the prejudice of this prologue.

A year late, the young rise up

Until recently, fashions took their time in reaching New Zealand. Thus, the counterpart to the Parisian events of May, 1968, occurred in 1969. That year began with students staging the nation’s first sit-in or occupation of the US Consulate in Auckland, in protest against the Viet Nam war to which, like the US, South Korea and Australia, New Zealand sent troops. There followed in Auckland one polite sit-in in the university library, and one accidental occupation of the vice-chancellor’s suite. The year ended with an up-to-date fashion of speak-ins, love-ins and citizens’ carnivals in a central city park. The paltriness of such protest corresponded with the pettiness of municipal regulations, which forbade addressing the public in a public place like a park. In reply, the Auckland youth produced a combination of the Berkeley free-speech movement and the California love-ins – but only on Sundays. The first attempts actually to organise around specific issues had to wait until 1971, when groups to do with women's liberation, gay liberation, and minority rights (the nga tamatoa, Maori for ‘young warriors’) appeared. Between 1969 and 1971, protest marches increased in size, but without successful retention of the marchers as activists and cadres. The protests were themselves issue-specific, to do with apartheid in South Africa – or, rather, that New Zealand rugby should separate itself from South African rugby – and mainly to do with the Viet Nam war. There was little ideological focus in any of it, as a book by one of the most colourful and popular protest leaders revealed (Tim Shadbolt, Bullshit and Jellybeans, Wellington: Alister Taylor, 1971). Tim Shadbolt was in the Jerry Rubin and Abbie Hoffman mould. There were indeed aspirants for the role of antipodean Tariq Ali, and with the same Trotskyist baggage; but Owen Gager’s Spartacist League had a membership of two which, between purges and reinstatements, often dwindled to one, and his rivals, the Fyson brothers, were spectacularly unpopular. At the 1970 Radical Activists Conference in Wellington, George Fyson was pelted by LP records (?!), but Gager was given a moderate ovation. There was a true intellect in Gager, but the New Zealand movement had no idea how to use it. The 1980s history of it all is garbled and incorrect; (e.g. Kevin Clements, in ‘Back from the Brink: the Creation of a Nuclear Free New Zealand’, Wellington: Allen and Unwin, 1988, p. 103, writes that Shadbolt was a ‘prominent member’ of the Progressive Youth Movement – the Communist Party youth wing – which in fact he took great pains never to be. See Shadbolt ibid. p. 134); but perhaps something so innocent and unmeditated is best uncharted.

This is to reflect with rue and condescension. In 1969 the spirit of protest was one with the joy of life and, as elsewhere in the western world, feelings of exhilaration and liberty filled the air. Moreover, the level and content of protest, as with the park episode, fitted the level and content of New Zealand politics. Urge and joy were the same as in Paris, even if sophistication and complexity were not. In the university departments of English, however, a little more sophistication was afoot.

Revolt, romance, and entry

By September 1969, a small group of mainly young Auckland poets had protested sufficiently against the literary establishment for two of their leaders to be interviewed in a recently-resuscitated poetry journal. The resuscitation and launch of journals at this time was one sign of literary activism, protest was another. They coincided in the feeling that what went before was insufficient, firstly in the volume of outlets for the young (and that the outlets that existed didn’t care whether young writers were published or not), secondly in the location of imagery (a firm New Zealandism or fern-and-bushism), and thirdly in the matter of style (whether or not modernism had stopped with Eliot). All three complaints appeared in the interview with Ian Wedde and Alan Brunton, with Brunton being the more aggressive. For him, New Zealand poetry was ‘denying any sort of freshness in itself because it is working within what it supposes to be the ‘tradition’ all the time.’ Far from there being any authentic tradition, there was instead ‘a group of friends,’ stretching from the 1930s, ‘working in the heroic mould of a NZ making.’ Much of recent poetry, implicitly that of the group of friends, had been ‘thoroughly bad for a long time’, and the critical exposition of this work had been bad. Brunton explicitly singled out Allen Curnow’s historically significant anthology (Allen Curnow, ed. The Penguin Book of New Zealand Verse, Auckland: Blackwood and Janet Paul, 1960) – significant because there was only one other, and that was probably worse (Robert Chapman and Jonathan Bennett, An Anthology of New Zealand Verse, London: Oxford UP, 1956), for ‘the damage he’s done with his confused philosophy’ (‘Interview with Alan Brunton and Ian Wedde’, Argot, No. 21, 1969, p. 35). Nothing else in the interview rises above generality, except that Wedde and Brunton wanted greater accessibility to poems through street performances, so that there is only polemic here and no manifesto. The manifesto had been published elsewhere, and I shall return to it later; for the moment, the one specific charge of damage by Curnow should be noted.

Looking back with the hindsight of 20 years since Brunton’s complaint, it is difficult to see what other sort of introduction Curnow could have fashioned for his anthology. Poetry formed a minor part of a minor intellectual history, and Curnow saw this. He wasn’t so much beset by a confused philosophy as aware of the ambivalence of being a poet in New Zealand. Thus he laid great stress on the moment when he thought he could identify a ‘New Zealand poetry’ (Curnow, p. 48) (and kept trying to find indications or proof of it in as many poets writing after this ‘moment’ as he possibly could), while conscious that the poets themselves, while aspiring to be ‘Kiwis’ or ‘patriotic common men’, were likely to lack panache in attempting to convince the unwashed public of poetry’s worth (p. 64). There is nothing wrong in admitting self-consciousness, and even hinting at artifice, when setting about something new, ultimately important, but marginal in one’s own time and space.

The point here is that none of this was possible without its own revolt and romance. In the 1930s, university authorities banned certain literary presses for outraging local respectability; the presses conspired to go underground. Release from these constraints seemed to coincide with a change in the national political mood, and a Labour Government was elected in 1935. Other little presses sprang up, and New Zealand’s one enduring literary journal, Landfall, was launched. ‘The thirties released – or tapped – a spring’, wrote Curnow (p. 50), and the conditions of this release were not too different to the air of political radicalism of the late 1960s. Brunton, Wedde, and their group of friends, were hacking the same trail, with more historical baggage, but they hoped in a new direction. They weren’t concerned with being New Zealandish and the entire thrust of their interview was that they didn’t want to act out predetermined roles. It was as much a demand for a new sociology of literature, populated by them, as anything else.

This explains the generality of their early rationales. It is fair to say, however, that they inherited a literary criticism that was general. To this day, the award of LittD degrees by New Zealand universities does not surprise because of this parochiality of the work involved, but its generality, lack of system and theory. (Curnow’s work certainly, but I think, reluctantly, I would have to made the same judgement of C.K. Stead, In the Glass Case: essays on New Zealand Literature, Auckland: Auckland and Oxford UP, 1981). Some of this generality is seen in C.K. Stead’s foreword to a student anthology in 1968. Curnow had singled out three poets as figures of the future: James K. Baxter, Kendrick Smithyman, and Karl Stead, and all three were to play some sort of older brother role in either the political or literary protests of the late 1960s and early 1970s. In 1968, however, literary protest, like the political variety, was still a year away; in the wake of what followed, Stead’s foreword seemed trite. Not that this was out of place: Ian Wedde’s introduction to the volume, with its information that serious writing came from those who were seriously disciplined, was either patronising or gratuitous – trying too hard to stake a claim for his anthology to be taken seriously. By whom? Stead’s foreword did not fail to recount how Stead, as a student poet, had brushed shoulders with the 1930s generation. There seemed a barely-written desire for entry to their world, and a hesitant implication that covered its tracks well that this world was monopolistic. By the time he wrote the foreword, Stead was more than an approved entrant and he was, moreover, sympathetic to the next generation of applicants. But he didn’t give them substantial advice, and his closing definition of a poet as ‘a man in love, or out of sympathy with his government’, prepared his audience for nothing. (C.K. Stead, ‘Foreword’ in Ian Wedde, ed., New Zealand Universities Arts Festival Yearbook 1968, Auckland: NZU Arts Festival Committee, 1988, p. 8.)

But, for Stead’s audience, many of whom were his students, he was an ideal choice of guide to first base. Smithyman and Curnow were their teachers too, but Smithyman lacked Stead’s style and his commitment to a form of modernist technique was to write perhaps extremely well, but densely. As for Curnow, already by 1968, years had aged his commitment to teaching the young. His lectures, even on Byron, were dated, and his examinations – alone in the faculty – could not be bothered with student expression of opinion but demanded, contemptuously year after year, yes/no fill-in-the-gap answers. These were easy to mark. If he was out of sympathy with the academic aspirations of his students, he gained a just desert. This may be overlooked in most intellectual histories, but retribution against a disappointing professor never looks petty to a student who has barely graduated. In the close environment of a university, quite apart from the objective merits and demerits of his critical work, Curnow brought upon himself, at least partly, the scorn of those he had trivialised. In Stead’s case, however, his teaching technique was sympathetic and, more importantly, he had become internationally renowned for his fresh appreciation of Yeats and Eliot. It was not that he was an expert on these two – much more had entered the modern canon since then – but that he recognised a modern dynamic which must triumph against the odds, ‘despite the forces of discursive mediocrity directed against it’ (C. K. Stead, The New Poetic, London: Hutchinson, 1964, p. 191). At the end of a brilliant book, in its last sentence, came this call to arms. Stead had to support the young, and Wedde’s invitation to him to pen a foreword to his anthology recognised this.

The students had an ambivalent attitude towards Baxter. Technically, among the most accomplished of all New Zealand poets, and with the ancient classics lurking about both his poetry and criticism, he seemed full of contradictions. At one moment, he could be populating his critical work with either an astounding or barely-learnt array of allusions (e.g. James K. Baxter, The Fire and the Anvil: notes on modern poetry, Wellington: NZUP, 1955), and the next he could be so drunk that it seemed forced – or that he had decreed to himself that this condition identified the poet with the ‘patriotic common man’, the ‘Kiwi’. He had certainly earned some laurels among the young. From 1966-7 he had held the Burns Fellowship at Otago University and, with a single poem, brought such national ridicule upon the head of a hapless vice-chancellor who had sought to prohibit male and female students from sharing private accommodation, that he stood fair to make a career as an iconoclast. This he did, but in a wholly unexpected way. The late 1960s were an ideal time for a guru to appear, even in New Zealand. Duly released from Otago, Baxter appeared in Auckland in a contemporary version of monk’s habit – a Rabelaisian monk – and proceeded to set up house as protector of the poor and homeless, champion of the oppressed, father to the addicted, and unwashed gate-crasher-who-could-never-be-turned-away (how could anyone turn away a legend who now looked like a guru?) from the well-washed and still-polite literary and academic world. He became a great scrounger among his former friends – though the money was seldom spent on himself – and a dispenser of pieties in conversation. It must be said that the literary establishment, which had earlier invited him in, was first bewildered, then made an extraordinary attempt to accommodate his political and social activism and his grandly idiosyncratic appearance and personal habits. Too hard. Much was so sincere that, really, Baxter was a saintly figure; much was also contrived pose but, even in retrospect, years after his death in 1972, few will say this out loud.

Baxter established a refuge for drug addicts in Boyle Crescent, in the Grafton suburb of Auckland. He truly loved this house and his mission there. They provided the setting of his most notable late political poems – most of which appeared first in broadsheets he privately published, before being anthologised later by respectable publishers. First reactions to them were that they were wordy, rambling, barely coherent. As iconoclasm and song, I thought they were brilliant. Next door to the refuge was a house rented by students. Brunton lived there for a time. I think, up close, Brunton saw very well the Baxter pose. For a number of reasons, perhaps this included, Baxter never came close to being the mentor of the literary uprising Brunton was plotting. There was, again perhaps, some small revenge from Baxter. In one of his last, this time truly rambling, prose poems, he recounted how the student next door complained that money had been stolen by one of Baxter’s addicts. Baxter pleaded with the student to forgive her – knowing that, recently, the student had slept with her. ‘The children of the affluent take time to learn the ethics of the poor. When it comes to the crunch, they are inclined to put property before people’ (Baxter, ‘elegy for Boyle crescent’, in James K. Baxter 1926-1972, a memorial volume, Wellington: Alister Taylor, 1972, pp. 110-11. This makes a good story, but there is no evidence that the student was Brunton so this is also, possibly, a calumny).

One last thing about Baxter. While Brunton and Wedde were giving their 1969 interview, in the very same journal Baxter was publishing a poem that outraged polite New Zealand society. It was meant to. As a sustained, metrically accomplished and rhyming polemic, it was a landmark. The middle lines, surrounded by many lines on fucking and the wherewithal and rationales of fucking, made Stead’s definition of a poet ‘out of sympathy with his government’ look staid and withdrawn.

                 Dear Sam, if you are twenty-two
                 Why should I foist my gall on you?
                 The answer is that poets live
                 By a refusal to forgive
                 The mighty Bog of social shit
                 That has no use for sex or wit
                 Or art or hope, but simply is
                 Internally its own abyss;
                At twenty-two or forty-one
                You need your gumboots and a gun.

                            (James K. Baxter, ‘letter to sam hunt’, Argot, no. 21, 1969, p. 9).

The second half of this poem, (p.10) is also a pun on Baxter’s own earlier acclaimed work and sober classical imagery. If the burgeoning Baxter industry ever gets around to the rude political poems it will no doubt, in a fit of comparative exegesis, soberly note this.

Of all New Zealand poets, Baxter came closest to the metaphorical gun. Contrived but relentless, crossing the borders of politics and polite culture, he has been, in the literature of his nation, the one radical. It was not this radicalism that the younger poets sought. In the generation of three – Baxter, Stead and Smithyman – that bridged their own generation to that of Curnow and the 1930s club, they sought what Stead and Smithyman had to offer. From Stead, encouragement and permission; from Smithyman, justification. In his own poetry, Stead was not then a modernist. Later, he made a determined effort to become one; but his first departure from what had become his ‘stainless steel’ image was hardly a modern poem at all. ‘Quesada’ was, in fact, a most antique poem, but what was modern about it was its verve. In Stead’s canon, it is the important mid-point between one approach to writing and another. (C.K. Stead, Quesada, Poems 1972-74, Auckland: the shed, 1975; for a perceptive view, see Peter Crisp, New Argot, vol. 3, no. 2, 1975, p. 7). Smithyman, however, had always been something of a modernist. Few could understand him and many complained that perhaps he deliberately made things difficult with his syntax. I simply felt he was confused, not his readers; and that the difficulty of following his poems came from the author’s own hesitancy in fully committing himself to a line of attack. For me, Smithyman was the poetic equivalent of the don who cannot write a sentence without an array of qualifications, covering arguments and subordinate clauses. This position was unshared by my colleagues. In Arthur Baysting’s 1973 anthology, meant to be something of definitive statement of what the young were doing, Smithyman was asked to write an afterword, a justification of what Baysting had included before. (Kendrick Smithyman, ‘Afterword’ in Arthur Baysting, ed. The Young New Zealand Poets, Auckland: Heinemann, 1973).

What Smithyman wrote here was far more interesting than what Baysting wrote in his own introduction. By any standards, this was unfortunate and tepid, an opportunity (and risk) shirked. Certainly it was a retreat from his introduction to an earlier anthology. In 1970, he had written that ‘advocates of a New Zealand literature’ would find ‘numerous crimes’ in his collection. ‘If one regards the standard New Zealand literary criteria as valid and then looks at the work in many of the reputable literary publications in Europe and America one can only conclude that a literary hoax of mammoth proportions is being perpetrated.’ (Arthur Baysting, ed. as Arthur Bates, New Zealand Universities Arts Festival Literary Yearbook 1970, Wellington: NZU Arts Festival Committee, 1970, p. 8). Those are fighting words. But they are also words related entirely to literature and the literary world. In 1970, Baysting dismissed the effectiveness of political poems and seemed to complain that some had been submitted to him – which he then rejected. He said nothing at all about politics in 1973 but, instead, called (very politely) for more government and university aid to poets and other writers. With the publication in 1973 of Baysting’s anthology, a handsome, hardcovered and substantial collection, it was as if a moment of agitation and demand had passed. Something had been compensated, and that something was probably the exclusion of the young in Vincent O’Sullivan’s Oxford anthology in 1970. Later editions, very timidly at first, but more generously after time, included them. But the Oxford anthology was a prestigious and internationally released book, the successor to Curnow’s on library shelves around the world – and this despite an introduction by O’Sullivan that avoided Curnow’s critical lapses by refusing to offer any literary criticism at all, some notes that elevated generality to its own art form. (Vincent O’Sullivan, selector, An Anthology of Twentieth Century New Zealand Poetry, London: Oxford UP, 1970). But to be in it was the objective, and Baysting’s contributors knew that next time round O’Sullivan could not ignore them. To a very large extent, the Baysting anthology was the evidence of a new club, and the old club had better take notice. By 1973, the old club was not to be overthrown, but perhaps a merger could be negotiated … In 1970, Baysting had not been like this, and in 1969 the manifesto of the young, authored largely by Brunton, had not been like this. Only those few short years earlier, the talk had been of overthrow, not entry.

1969: The Manifesto is FREED

Only five issues of Freed were ever published, between 1969 and 1972. Alan Brunton edited issues one and two, Murray Edmond three and four, and Russell Haley the fifth. Only issues four and five followed the same physical format; otherwise, the issues were a jumble of different sizes and stylings – their major consistency being their design by David Kisler. Among the cognoscenti, Freed made Kisler the doyen of layout artists. The first issue created the splash, giant-sized, brilliant to look at, almost impossible to read. Most who contributed had been at least fore-warned. Even Trevor Reeves, normally the most sober of poets and editors, abandoned himself to the spirit of the thing. But the fact was that there was a club at work, not even in formation, but assembled and hard at it. The pseudonymous ‘Za’oud Through the Mountains’ recounted the circus and travelling road-show of them all. Harry Lurber, Catullus Baby, Lastnight Jim, Karadok and Za’oud himself were instantly recognisable to those on the periphery of their central, self-casting vehicle. It was of course a rendition of student humour, an anti-rhetoric, a self-indulgence. For years, no one turned up to give a poetry reading without being drunk or getting drunk on stage.

Traces of all this were found also in Brunton’s star-pieces – for Freed One was truly his magazine – and he himself conceded readily that he had been deliberately extreme. The message, however, under all the posing and the ersatz anarchy, was clear. If it was clear, the excess in articulating it was excused by the lines:

                                                             the ding an sich of hope when
                 death & absurdity are realised by the maddest minds of the 


As if only the mad could say it. Freed One was a grand affectation whose message, if clear, could be ignored by fixation instead on the manner in which it was delivered. What did the Mad One say?

               STRUGGLE WITH THE THEORY.           
                                                                                                   NOW A NEW GROUP RECOGNISING
                                                                                                   ANCESTORS OUT OF VESPUCCI’S
                                                                                                   MAD CUT-UP CONTINENT DESTROYING
                                                                                                   THAT LAST WORLD FEELING OF
                                                                                                   MINORITY WHICH HAS MANHANDLED
                                                                                                   OUR WORDS INTO A GEORGIAN
                                                                                                   ATTITUDE OF INDIFFERENCE.
                OF THE BELLY OF NOW.

                          (Alan Brunton, ‘One The Word is Freed’, Freed, July 1969, p. 3).

Elsewhere in his editorial (for it is this we are remarking) he lambasts ‘the provincial error’, the writing of poetry with the intellect alone, with all ‘its exhausted nomenclatures, verbal pabulum’, reifies ‘the poet as his own hero’, and drops a number of names which have influenced him. Beyond the editorial, in the first poem of the journal, Brunton calls for the end of ‘the rule of the Elders’, accusing them of devaluing the ‘metaphysics of discovery’.

                The Elders cult the sufficient &
                not the significant to ensure ele-
                vation to the Guild

                          (Alan Brunton, ‘master alan nearly incinerates for ever sam the orc . . . ‘ Freed One. p. 5)

Already, there is a hint that entry to the guild is what it’s all about, but the tenor of these statements is very much one of defiance and challenge. If we are not to be elevated to it, we shall take your fortress by storm. Not that the bravado was consistently confident – in his last poem for Freed One, Brunton seemed to be flashing his cold feet (‘Please don’t shoot the piano player’, p. 21) – but it attracted an array of supporters and sympathisers. Freed became a flagship and, even though succeeding issues never reached the feverish pitch of the first, and even though some later editorials were just plain silly, it should have gone down in New Zealand literary history as a moment of jolly piracy and when a few grappling hooks stuck fast, allowing a few madmen to swing aboard whatever it was they had been chasing and shelling. Bert Hingley summed it up in a valedictory comment. Freed had made names of Brunton, Haley, Edmond and David Mitchell – the last a previously much under-published poet who had, deliberately, confined his song-like poems to the reading circuit, but who could now be regarded as ‘New Zealand’s best lyric poet to date’. The end result, according to Hingley, was that ‘the old mandarins have had to move along the bench and the new ones are hastening to take their places, no great change after all perhaps’. (Bert Hingley, ‘Freed 1-4 Reviewed’, Freed at Last, July 1972, p. 25).

Of the new mandarins named by Hingley, only Brunton never published a book and, shortly after the first issues of Freed, he disappeared overseas, concentrating more as time passed on experimental theatre, and fading fast from New Zealand poetry. Yet, of them all, he was probably the most talented. His openness to new forms led to one of the best introductory lines of any New Zealand poem:

                Chan Yen-Yuan in the year of the Hare
                Frescoes the palace of Genghis the Sun

                           (Alan Brunton, ‘note of a poet’, Argot, March 1969)

He produced a haunting but largely unremarked free translation from anglo-saxon, (‘deor’, Freed Two, 1969), and what I take to be the best self-lament of his generation (‘Shellback’s address to the city’, Freed Three, 1970). He should have been around longer. An excessive mandarin is always useful.

The most spectacular Freed discovery, David Mitchell, did produce a book, did enter O’Sullivan’s anthology, but also disappeared from sight shortly afterwards. Murray Edmond’s decision to publish the very long ‘The Singing Bread’ by Mitchell was not the best choice available. It is the worst of Mitchell’s confessionals, the most striving for affect, maudlin and self-consciously French. The final word of the poem is also the final name-drop: Baudelaire – as if, by now, a decadence had to be sanctified by reference to a saint of decadence. (David Mitchell, ‘the singing bread’, Freed Three, p. 11). But Edmond was right in perhaps thinking he had to get something of substantial length by Mitchell into the open, as if he suspected the man might evaporate without a moment’s notice and he had better have at least one decent flowering. That flowering came with his single book, which caused C.K. Stead to rejoice ‘in this rich and curious talent’ (C.K. Stead, ‘He Sing Fr You’, Islands, vol. 1, no. 1, p. 69). The book, Pipe Dreams in Ponsonby, (Auckland: Stephen Chan, 1971) was the result of endless reworkings. Of Mitchell’s original reading circuit poems, very few were ever trusted to print. Of his two most popular verbal sets, Soixante-Neuf never appeared anywhere in its entirety; and Pipe Dreams was so reworked that the publisher, though delighted by the final manuscript, hardly recognised in it what he thought he had offered to publish. One poem from the original Pipe Dreams set slipped the net and found its way into a small student journal. It showed Mitchell at his simplest and, I think, best (David Mitchell, ‘Rosy Crochet’, experiment, no. 13, 1969). This talent, like Brunton’s, is no longer working in New Zealand – so that Freed, while laying claim to the promotion of fresh talent, hardly expected so much to disappear shortly after its own demise.

Even Mitchell’s self-conscious evocation of Baudelaire and Rimbaud were important, however. Simply, it was the evocation of something French, i.e. neither New Zealandish nor English – something outside the anglophonic world. In a poetic literature that, up to then and only with O’Sullivan’s first Oxford anthology, recognised one group of poems written in Africa (Michael Jackson, three poems), with all the rest narrowly extracted, any other cultural intrusion was welcome. Ian Wedde’s first book of poems had also the same importance. Its cycle of poems about Matisse continued the French reference, but the best poems of the book were either set in exotic lands – Jordan providing the best example – (Ian Wedde, ‘Bridge’, Made Over, Auckland: Stephen Chan, 1974) – or celebrated the idea of leaving New Zealand (Ian Wedde, ‘Gulf Letters’, ibid,). As if, after so much local indignation, someone had better go out to report on what the grass over there really looked like.

One of the distinctive omissions from Freed were political poems. Mitchell penned the one exception, ‘odalisque/mi lai’ in Freed Four, as he had for Baysting’s 1970 collection with ‘Kingseat/My song, (though Baysting disputed whether this was truly political; it was, and the Freed poem certainly was). There was something at least maladroit about this, and it would have been a shallow evasion to say that New Zealand politics were shallow. They were, and often clumsily so. As outlined earlier, youthful radical politics were no exception. But some of the issues and causes could not be diminished by the naivety of the protest. In particular, the Viet Nam war was expanding. By 1971, Auckland was seeing demonstrations of 10 000 marchers at a time – a smallish figure, but it was a smallish city, and it represented one out of every 50 citizens. The radical poets missed altogether the beginnings of protest for minority, particularly Maori rights – although, in one or two editorials, they did note the absence of women poets. Baysting remarked briefly on the lack of poetry by women in the introduction to both his anthologies, but complained in his 1973 effort that much of the work he had considered seemed merely ‘cathartic’, at times almost ‘exorcistic’, which, as any feminist even then would have told him, was no wonder. Part of coming out must be cathartic and exorcistic, and no one could say that the Freed manifesto was not cathartic and exorcistic in the context of its literary world. The reluctance to move outside this literary world must stand as a critique against Freed.

This is not to say that there was no awareness of a world outside. It was, however, all too often left to Russell Haley’s sense of paranoia to suggest that (if not evil) something sinister existed out there. Too often, in Haley’s case, the paranoia devolved into a pose and the poems into set-pieces – some of which were excellent writing, e.g. ‘Hoardings’ – but they always evoked the reaction, ‘here’s another Haley poem’, and not, ‘here is a poem about politics’, or even the political condition. Some of the young poets saved their best work for organs other than Freed – Wedde being the most conspicuous example. Another was the Dunedin poet Bill Manhire. By the time he produced a slim volume in 1972 (The Elaboration, Wellington: Square & Circle, 1972) it was clear that he and Wedde were the two coolest and most elegant characters around – and it is they and the later Murray Edmond who, twenty years later, could be said truly to have made it as poets.

The other non-Auckland initiative of great note was Don Long’s publication, over five issues (although more were always rumoured) of Edge, out of Christchurch. This took Baysting’s charge that, compared with overseas writing something terrible and hoaxful had occurred in New Zealand, and quietly tested it. Long, an American, began publishing American and New Zealand poets side by side. The young New Zealanders sent more sober poems to Edge and, frankly, compared well with the Americans. But this raised a fundamental question: if good and cosmopolitan writing had been suppressed by the elders in New Zealand, how come so much of it could be produced in the late 1960s and early 1970s? Does something like this flow only from revolt? Does something like this happen without any preparation? Without any ancestry? Without any examples? There had been, perhaps, something overstated in the manifesto of the age.

That it all became domestic once more

What was the heroic mould of the 1930s? It was to do with existence and survival in a New Zealand landscape which, simultaneously, was beautiful and threatening. A man’s measure came by way of his profile against this environment. The idea of pioneering lay at the foundation of the 1930s group of friends. The danger in this sort of juxtaposition, however, man and bush, was its easy slide into cliché, and silly cliché at that. I was never sure whether, of the 1930s group, I could ever take Denis Glover seriously. He had, from the late 1960s to the present day, a spiritual successor in Sam Hunt. So the clumping about bush and the desire to show off credentials of ‘a common patriotic man’, a ‘Kiwi’, are alive and well.

A more sophisticated rendition (or variation) of this theme came in Murray Edmond’s best work of the early 1970s. As a student, he lived in lower Grafton, opposite a very large and very old cemetery which was, in the heart of Auckland, overgrown with ferns and other native plants and as close to bush as anything could be. A motorway (of course) was built through it and the bush was obliterated and has still not grown back. Close to this devastation, but shielded from it by the city’s most ugly great building, a hospital (of course), was the Auckland Domain, a very large and very cultivated park of nevertheless great tranquillity. Both bordered the university. These provided the setting and the imagery for Edmond’s book and, although clumping through bush is not there, the Edmond shuffle through Domain and vandalised gully is a not impure derivative. Some very fine poems inhabit this book, but they are startling for their sense of place and commitment to place, in short for their domesticity. In it all, says Edmond, ‘I desire to live & die’ (Murray Edmond, ‘Night Shift Three’, in Entering the Eye, Dunedin: Caveman, 1973).

Wedde also, returned from exotic climes, began writing of domesticity. This is not to be insulting. His set of poems to his first son are superb (Ian Wedde, Earthly: Sonnets for Carlos, Akaroa: Amphedesma, 1975). But it is to note a contraction. Geographically at least there was a sense of where home is, and home has an earthy and natural solidity about it. Distance, the ‘out there’, the planes tossing themselves up to discover beyond, these fade from the writing; and the ‘out there’ becomes the sea that surrounds the country, and getting there becomes a heroic and comic, almost man alone attempt to cut a drainage channel through clay and weed (Ian Wedde, ‘Pathway to the Sea’, in Castaly, Auckland: AUP, 1980). The club of the 1930s and the club of the 1960s and 70s seemed merged.

One day in 1979, walking in the Charing Cross Road of London, on my way to Chinese lunch and bookshops, someone tapped me on the shoulder. It was the great, thin, orange-haired Brunton. And he recounted to me his recent sojourn in New York, how on Fifth Avenue he and his troupe had brought guerrilla theatre back; how New Yorkers had not seen it for years; how they applauded this evocation in the streets, as if their memories could materialise and the decade of protest begin again. Arise Citizens. Brunton would say that with his arms outstretched. And repeat it as if it meant something. I never saw him again. I think he went back with his travelling theatre to New Zealand for a while, and then packed off overseas again. I forget the name of the theatre – Red Mole suggests itself, as if he still thought art alone could be subversive, as if he had now married art and politics, I never found out. But, in the 1969 interview, Brunton and Wedde had sought a street poetry, a street theatre, ‘we could do something like the San Francisco Mime Troupe’. Brunton made the last comment in that interview: ‘The poet is really a beggar, too frightened of the words in his head to be fit for more than verbal capers on street corners’. Maybe he was right, but I walked away from the Charing Cross Road, tears in my eyes, because I thought he alone had been true.


When I visited New Zealand in 1986 the rebellion, minus Brunton, had long since merged with the establishment and dominated it. The hybrid of elders was now subject to charges of antiquity by an even younger and brighter generation. There were no longer complaints about Curnow’s Penguin anthology. The latest Penguin collection had been edited by Wedde, and all the wrongs of Curnow and early O’Sullivan put into history. It was, however, a very controversial book, not because x number of young had been included or excluded (x number of the old and dead had certainly been excluded), but because of its very high rate of inclusion of Maori poets. Wedde forthrightly defended his policy. (See the introduction to Ian Wedde, Harvey McQueen, eds., The Penguin Book of New Zealand Verse, Auckland: Penguin, 1985.) In so doing, he merged at last a great political issue (of which the young poets had been largely unaware in 1969) with a perception of national literature. The Penguin, as in Curnow’s day, carried the stamp of international consumption and reference and was therefore, rightly or wrongly, to be taken as definitive. The uproar over Wedde’s book ignored the fact that it had followed a recent predecessor, edited by Don Long and Witi Ihimaera, which was the true pioneer. (Witi Ihimaera and D.S. Long, eds., Into the World of Light: an anthology of Maori writing, Auckland: Heinemann, 1985). The Penguin, however, would represent the national literature, and it is this very concept – that there is a national literature with national reference points – that was once disputed. Then, the urge had been to open up as many foreign influences as possible, to end provincialism and parochiality, to overcome distance. The decision to emphasise Maori writing, while politically correct and highly desirable, had also the effect of interiorising literature far more authentically but far more firmly than it had ever been before.

Such a contradiction is probably inescapable, and it is certainly an improvement over the days when Hone Tuwhare was the lone evidence of a Maori poet. (Trevor Reeves’ Caveman Press in Dunedin did a great service in resurrecting earlier volumes by Tuwhare and publishing new ones: Hone Tuwhare, sap-wood & mil, 1973, and Something Nothing, 1974. The dedication on sap-wood & milk is evocative: ‘to anyone who may feel left out, and bloody glad of it’.) Other earlier poets, attempting to work with Maori images and even vocabulary, had been, like Barry Mitcalfe, regarded as marginal by the generation of 17 years earlier (see Barry Mitcalfe, Migrant, Dunedin: Caveman, 1975). Ironically, Baxter in his guru years had emphasised and used Maori mythology and vocabulary in solidarity with his belief that the Maori represented the last of innocence that could be traced after the Fall. All this, together with the Maori political activism itself (beginning in 1971 with the Nga Tamatoa) had helped lead to, among other somewhat more important things, the Wedde anthology. But what it was, in terms of literary history, was the final eclipse of the leitmotif of the 1930s generation. Curnow had a particularly famous poem – the longest-running New Zealand literary journal was named after it – and it was called ‘Landfall in Unknown Seas’, beginning with the lines ‘Simply by sailing in a new direction / You could enlarge the world’. The elementary but significant corrective was that in that new direction was somebody else’s world. It was known to somebody else. The landfall was an invasion of somebody else’s territory. The body of Curnow’s poem recognised this in a dark fashion, but it was the opening lines that stuck in the public consciousness. The fundamental premise of this consciousness was wrong, and thinking of that sort had led to an historical disaster for the Maori people. In literary terms, therefore, Wedde’s Penguin finally answered Brunton’s complaint about Curnow’s Penguin, but in a way he could not have envisaged.

Not much else. There were now several women’s anthologies; many more state and university-aided fellowships for writers; the continuing turnover of small presses and small magazines that began in 1969. With all of these things and other enhancements of intellectual life, not to mention material prosperity in the awesome middle class, came a confidence and a pervasive self-righteousness. The stand against nuclear ships in New Zealand harbours had an appalling ‘not in our backyard’ character, but Europe could go blow itself up for all that those in pure harbours cared.

I left, but thought someday I would write a short history of it all. This is part of that. It is a memoir and I have not consulted what must be a large body of critical writing on modern New Zealand literature. I have the lazy excuse that, having changed disciplines, I cannot read criticism any longer. What value this essay has is the value that an observer and minor participant brings. That is the only claim. I am very aware that the account is fragmentary. Literature does not live alone and, even if it can live apart from politics (which I do not believe), it cannot live apart from other art. The congruence of thought and creativity between the 1930s generation and painters like McCahon is apparent (see Gordon H. Brown, Colin McCahon: Artist, Wellington: Reed, 1984), as is that between the generation of 1969 and painters like Pat Hanly. The great friendship between Russell Haley and Hanly, expressed in poems and in Haley’s full-length study of the painter, suggests at least a club of many art-forms and not just one club of poets. (For a poem, see Russell Haley, ‘Night Flying with Hanly’, Freed Four, June 1971; for the critical study / biography, see Russell Haley’s work which was meant to be forthcoming from Hodder and Stoughton, Auckland, in mid-1989) But if it is all this close, so similar to a club, so capable of intimacy because of the fact of nearness – a small population – and neighbourliness – it’s easy to know everybody else – and if it is all reinforced because everything else, the rest of the world, is so far away, so many ocean leagues away, then someone might find Haley’s paranoia insufficient. I suffer claustrophobia.

This is to put it at its meanest. Nothing devalues good work and New Zealand poetry has been severely under-read internationally. It is good enough to be read a great deal more. When I began preparing this essay, I went to the University of Kent library and found the latest Landfall. There, to the satisfaction of my sense of irony, was an article by Murray Edmond, defending, justifying Smithyman. (‘Divagation: Kendrick Smithyman’s Poetry’, Landfall 168, 1989). How much, I thought, the wheel has turned. In the same issue were some poems by Edmond. I read his work and it gave me great pleasure.


[1] Stephen Chan is currently Professor of International Relations and foundation Dean of Law & Social Sciences, School of Oriental and African Studies, University of London


© Stephen Chan


Last updated 08 June, 2002