This essay by Taumarunui’s A.D. Thomas is a response, in letter form, to Taupo’s Chris Eyes’ and his thoughts on poetry posted in Part 1 of this series. While Chris’ essay demonstrated a visceral and personal appreciation to poetry surrounding us, particularly in lyrics, he wanted to know more about New Zealand poetry and where the best starting points would be for exploring it. A.D. Thomas, an historian as well as a writer, offered this response by way of an introduction to New Zealand Poetry and to the poets themselves. Be sure and return for Part 3 in this series next week, when I will share my own thoughts in response to these gentlemen.
Kia ora Chris,
You ask me to tell you something about New Zealand Poetry, but I’m not sure I really can. You ask me to recommend some poets to begin with, and again, I’m reluctant to put one poet above another. But you should look into New Zealand Poetry proper, now more than ever, because our poets still have a lot to say about how we are living our lives, and how we should be. Our poets are also the best gauge of how society was in New Zealand throughout the 1930s, 40s and 50s, through to the 80s and, (occasionally), even today. Whom I take to be of New Zealand’s great poets may well not feature on any other scholar’s premier league list, but the poets I do wish to tell you about are notable for the fact that they were great writers as well as extraordinary people. Poets, after all, are a special type of literary figure, beset with spiritual and physical crises quite beyond the ken of normal men. I think New Zealand’s poets are of the same ilk. You probably need to begin with Ursula Bethell though, who wasn’t really a poet in the ‘extraordinary’ sense, but wrote lovely poems, and was very alert to the landscape she found herself in. Then you can crack open the wound of New Zealand identity with R.A.K. Mason and A.R.D. Fairburn, the true pioneers of the New Zealand Poetry scene. They need to be followed by Robin Hyde, then the next generation of Glover, Brasch and Curnow. If you can stomach Curnow’s heavier stuff, you’ll be ready for Baxter, who’s the best poet we’ve had for decades, although Smithyman’s a trooper and C.K.Stead’s time is (hopefully, because I rate him) yet to come.
I like to think that the tradition of New Zealand Poetry began when Ursula Bethell looked up from her Christchurch garden and mused upon the magnificence of the Southern Alps, which, quite literally, oversaw her world. Her poem ‘Pause’ perfectly reflects the enduring themes of New Zealand Poetry in that it addresses the harsh weather, the rugged landscape, and the uprooted, yet hardy, people who have made their home here. Bethell herself was an ‘uprooted’ Englishwoman who had made her living, down south, running a boarding house for single, (and occasionally compromised), women. So it’s not until you get to Mason, in the early 1930s, that you get our first bona fide New Zealand poet. R.A.K. Mason, a third generation Aucklander, was also a poet in the tradition of poets as extraordinary people. He suffered truly for his art, and like any poet worth his words and wit, lived a life full of hardships and setbacks. The picture I have of Mason is of him, destitute and disillusioned, chucking two hundred copies of his book ‘The Beggar’ into the Waitemata Harbour. A mate tells me those first editions are worth shitloads these days.
Mason’s poetry is said to reflect the disillusionment with New Zealand society during the early 1930s. His agenda was to address the New Zealand condition, our colonial angst, our ‘uncomfortable’ relationship with an ‘unforgiving’ environment. For Mason New Zealand was “that far-pitched, perilous, hostile place”, a place where the people, the weather, and the land are always against you, testing your faith, trying your patience, driving you to the edge. Despite, somewhat reluctantly, sounding like New Zealand’s own Jeremiah, or prophet of doom, Mason’s life and work reveal him to be one of the true workers and sufferers for man’s cause. That is to say he was a poet of the stoic type, full of courage and stout, and, as Curnow pointed out, suffered greatly for his art: “Mason exhausted his subject, or it exhausted him.” Despite producing nothing after the fertile years of the 1930s, Mason’s bravery and patriotism ring true in the final lines of his memorable ‘Song of Allegiance’: “Though my song have none to hear, boldly bring I up the rear.”
At school, little, awkward Master Mason’s best mate was big, burly Rex Fairburn. A.R.D. Fairburn is, by far, a bigger figure on the New Zealand Poetry scene, in both stature and reputation. He’s the guy, so full of brio and combustion, who took Mason’s, somewhat stuffy, couplets into the hills and hurled them at the sky, the surf, the plains. Big Rex’s own poems leaves the reader out under the stars, inhaling the closeness of frosts, hares, bracken and pheasants. There’s a photo of him on the back cover of a book on my shelves. He’s dapper enough; tweed coat and tie, pipe in the crook of his mouth, legs crossed elegantly, balding like nobility. But, the thing is, Fairburn was a poet’s poet too. A bit of a rogue, a fickle figure with a liking for minstrelsy, he walked out on his family to roam the ranges, drink piss, shoot, and write poetry. There is a certain muscularity, or even an overt masculinity, in much of Fairburn’s work, which, on reflection, resembles the prose of Hemingway. But a closer reading shows that Fairburn’s verse exhibits tones of a gentler, more sensitive nature too:
“… when the bush is peopled with flowers,
Sparse clusters of white and yellow
On the dull green, like laughter in court;
And in summer when the coasts
Bear crimson bloom, sprinkled like blood
On the lintel of the land.”
(Elements, iii. 17-22)
Mason and Fairburn were really significant to the New Zealand literary scene in the 1930s. Back then there was an ongoing preoccupation, among protesters, artists and writers alike, that there was something wrong with New Zealand society. For Mason it was, quite simply, that we suffered from a lack of faith or spirituality. New Zealand was transitioning from a Christian into a Godless, secular society, where, for a poet like Mason, everyday interactions become meaningless. For Fairburn the whole capitalist, industrial, economic boom was to blame; things were better in the good old days. Back then we were stronger, healthier, more attuned to life and nature. Therefore Fairburn’s verse is more robust, more lustful, more gruntier than Mason’s ever was. Perhaps it is not too much to say that Fairburn’s is the first ‘voice’ of New Zealand Poetry. His is also the most ‘nostalgic’ voice. For much of what Fairburn has to say evokes the splendour of how it was, how it should be, and how it really is for those venturesome ones who head out into the hills to sleep under the stars.
Moving on from Mason and Fairburn, it would be remiss of us to miss the outstanding beauty of Robin Hyde. I have only one poem of hers to recommend, but we cannot move from the 1930s without first revisiting Hyde’s ‘Prayer for a Young Country’, a poem which ends in these haunting lines:
“And dreaming near, too vast for rage or mirth,
I see where woman-breasted ocean lies;
One hand for her horizons, one for earth …
The green Pacific with her waiting eyes.”
Her life was pretty tragic too. For me she ticks both the poetry and poet boxes.
The next half-decent poet is Denis Glover, who picks up where Fairburn left off, out in the hills. Through characters like Awarata Bill and Dirty Mick, Glover gives us the New Zealand experience from a tramp-in-the-hedgerow perspective. It’s effective verse, punchy, ballad-like, even tending to doggerel. Glover was another larger-than-life figure, a man we’d all like to have a beer with, a man we wouldn’t want to cross. Underlying much of his poetry there’s a blunt political agenda, targeting the social injustices wrought on the people by the ruling classes. He could be caustic and crude, but cryptic too:
“But praise St. Francis feeding crumbs
Into the empty mouths of guns.”
(Themes, lines 28, 29)
Charles Brasch was a more refined figure, but he too was concerned with man’s struggle with the land and its elements. What he also shares in common with Glover is the fact they were both from the South Island. You get a real sense of space in the poetry of our southern poets; there’s more wind, more plains and mountains, and huger horizons.
“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.”
(The Silent Land, lines 9-12)
You get the idea. The last line is one of my favourites of Brasch’s. I’ve got it painted on the wall of my shed. Other southern poets who share this same spacious quality are Baxter, Tuwhare, and Brian Turner. However, if you’re searching for New Zealand culture, or history, or people, or even the haunting mysteries of our New Zealand bush, then you need to read poets from the North Island. And for those aspects of New Zealand you need to read Allen Curnow.
So much of our New Zealand Poetry tradition is built upon the work (reading, writing, editing and teaching) of Curnow. While he may not be our greatest poet (although ‘House and Land’ and ‘Landfall in Unknown Seas’ are among our most famous poems), we can all thank Curnow for being a poet-maker. In this he is not unlike Walt Whitman, or Ezra Pound; all three, poets in their own right, were responsible for teaching others/us what poets are for, what is good poetry, who the great poets are, and why. Art-critic John Berger wrote “it is so often artists who teach us how to look at art,” and it is equally true that poets teach us how to read poetry. Curnow did this for New Zealand with his (really quite brilliant) Introduction to ‘The Penguin Book of New Zealand Verse’, a collection which more or less canonised those poems he chose. Curnow, however, was no wild, roaming Bohemian poet. He was a quiet and conservative man who lived in the suburbs of Auckland. Still, the fire of the poet was in him, I’m pretty sure he wrote “But O if your blood’s tongued it must recite!” Which is also up on my shed wall.
Time and loss are other powerful themes in New Zealand poetry. Many of our poets really tap into the incredible age and terrestrial wisdom of our land. This is best read in poems from Brasch’s ‘Ruins’, (although a really significant earlier example is ‘Forerunners’), or Curnow’s ‘Skeleton of the Great Moa in the Canterbury Museum, Christchurch’. Yes, that is the title of the poem. But the best exponent of the poetical themes of time and loss is James K. Baxter. Fortunately I know that you already know a fair bit about old JKB, so he hardly needs any introductions. Suffice to say I prefer his earlier poetry, when he was in his mischief-making early twenties. 1949 was a good year for Baxter in that I think he wrote and published some of the greatest poetry our country has seen. ‘Poem in the Matukituki Valley’ and ‘Wild Bees’ are two of my favourites from that year. Both deal with the angst of time passing and us aging, both address lost innocence and a return to nature. Only Baxter could put it thus:
“But loss is a precious stone to me, a nectar
Distilled in time, preaching the truth of winter
To the fallen heart, that does not cease to fall.”
(Wild Bees, last lines)
Now that is spine-tingling, heart-welling stuff. Whereas, apart from the occasional sonnet, Baxter’s later verse leaves me cold. Jerusalem is not far down river from us, and it is a cold, foggy place, especially during “the truth of winter”. While it is fair to say JKB made his peace with God and (parts of) the world down there, New Zealand lost its last great poet when he died, aged just 46. His is the only grave of a literary figure I’ve made a pilgrimage to, but I do hope to get over and visit Stevenson’s in Apia one day.
Ah, you see I can tell you something about New Zealand Poetry after all. But it’s such a small something, and completely corrupted by my own biases and point of view. In the end I see I have ranked some poets over others, almost inadvertently, and have actually come up short of a complete overview by ending with Baxter. Smithyman deserves space, as do Tuwhare, Turner, Colquhuon, Hunt and most of all Stead. C.K. Stead has probably taken up Curnow’s mantel as the grand old man of New Zealand Literature. He too is a poet and poet-maker, he too carries the flame of our New Zealand Poetry tradition.
Well. I hope that helps. I look forward to hearing what you’ve discovered for yourself reading the wonderful poets of New Zealand.