Best New Zealand Poems 2001




For a small country, New Zealand is host to a surprisingly large number of first-rate poets. This has been true since the 1930s, but New Zealand poetry has never been in stronger shape than it is today. Dozens of writers, of all ages, are producing worthwhile work. The aim of this site is to showcase some of it. We’re not saying that every New Zealand poem worth considering from 2001 can be found here. Heaven forbid! We’re just opening up possibilities for further investigation. This is a little window display, not the whole shop.

When Bill Manhire and I first discussed the possibility of setting up the site, we agreed that the Best American Poetry series, published yearly by Scribner since 1988, would be a useful guide. Too much politics should not be read into this. We weren’t necessarily pinning our allegiance to American rather than Anglophile styles of verse-making. We just thought that the people associated with the Scribner project had made some sensible decisions that we wished to emulate.

Annual publication seemed manageable, whereas a quarterly, monthly or — holy cow! — weekly frequency definitely didn’t. Limiting each poet to a single poem is an adroit way of sidestepping issues of rank and status that invariably cause pain and land editors in trouble. Democracy is further served by restricting the tenure of each editor to a single year. Thus the deficiencies of one selector’s taste can be rectified in subsequent years. Since I was first up, I was also relieved to know I was making a relatively short-term commitment rather than signing my life away.

Some modifications to the Scribner model proved necessary because New Zealand is a very different country from the United States. The Scribner editors have settled on a tally of 75 poems per volume. Matching that figure seemed somewhat presumptuous, even vainglorious, given that the population of the States is more than 90 times that of New Zealand. On the other hand, it was plainly lunatic to divide 75 by 90 and allow ourselves only an eighth of a poem (or whatever the arithmetic comes to). A tally of 25 poems seemed a fairly happy compromise between the warring dictates of national pride and due humility.

The Scribner editors almost invariably make their selections from literary magazines. In the States, there are hundreds to choose from. In New Zealand, there’s just a handful. To broaden my range of options, I granted myself the right to pick from books published in 2001 as well as magazines. The obvious objection is that most poetry books gather the labours of several years, not just one. I haven’t let this worry me too much. The interpretation here of “2001” is a generous one.

Indeed, I found myself eyeing some of the productions of 2000 — such as Nick Ascroft’s From the Author Of, Paula Green’s Chrome and Murray Edmond’s Laminations — with a deep sense of loss. And when I tried to sneak in a poem I love from Michele Leggott’s superb 1999 volume As Far As I Can See, Bill had to tug at my sleeve and remind me that this was cheating.

The 2001 instalment of Best American Poetry includes a marvellous extended piece by New York poet J. D. McClatchy called “Tattoos” (or “Tattooes” in British spelling). The last of its three sections is titled “New Zealand, 1890” and it’s about Maori tattooing. I coveted this poem and wondered for a while if our definitions could be stretched to embrace it. But I decided in the end that this, too, would be cheating. The intention of this site is to present poems by New Zealanders, wherever their imagination is located, rather than poems about New Zealand. Not that we’re in the business of inspecting birth certificates, citizenship papers and passports to determine who does or doesn’t qualify as a New Zealander. A steady association with the country is sufficient.

I saw no need, when making my selections, to hunt actively for “New Zealandness”. I figured it was bound to turn up anyway. Irrespective of their modus operandi, poets can’t avoid local geography, history and terminology for long. There was a time when New Zealand writers fretted obsessively over questions of “national identity” and felt a need to explain any indigenous oddities for the benefit of British readers. Not now. Today, most of our poets see no problem in mixing news from the parish pump with wider learning. Ian Wedde’s Commonplace Odes are modelled on Horatian precepts. In “To Death” (included here), he mentions Archytas, the Greek mathematician from the 4th century BC, and someone by the ancient Roman name of Quintilius. Yet he also slips in a reference to Picton, a little seaside town at the top of the South Island. I like that. Alan Brunton’s “Movie” moves, among other locales, from an Egyptian archaeological site to a Brazilian river and then, “through green paddocks”, to an Auckland pub. I like that too.

Some references will be picked up more readily, of course, by New Zealanders than by readers from other places. In the art world, one of the country’s most significant events in recent years was an exhibition called Parihaka: The Art of Passive Resistance, held at Wellington’s City Gallery from August 2000 to January 2001. This focused on a particularly disgraceful incident in the history of Maori-European contact — the expulsion of pacifist leaders Te Whiti o Rongomai and Tohu Kakahi and their people from their land by Crown forces in 1881. Gregory O’Brien was one of the curators of the exhibition. His splendidly meditative “Ode to Te Whiti o Rongomai” is included here, as is Elizabeth Smither’s pithy and moving “Te Whiti and Tohu”. While I believe that these fine poems are accessible to readers everywhere, I also recognise that they’ll probably make their most profound impact on a home audience familiar with the background.

Like all anthologists, I found that some works resist being broken into pieces. I wanted to take an extract from my old friend Michael O’Leary’s book-length love-poem He Waiatanui Kia Aroha, but my attempts failed; it needs to be read entire. Likewise, no single poem from Hone Tuwhare’s Piggyback Moon seemed quite to capture the warm, rebellious spirit of the whole. I hope I haven’t done too much damage to some of the poems I did decide to wrench from their original settings. I urge everybody to read all of Wedde’s Commonplace Odes, not just the one featured here. I think Alistair Te Ariki Campbell’s poem “It’s Greece” can stand alone, but it undoubtedly takes on added resonance as part of his wonderful sequence “Maori Battalion”. And “The Footstool” gives no more than a taste of Leigh Davis’ extraordinary work General Motors, best viewed on his website

Elsewhere, some poems more or less picked themselves. Kate Camp’s “Unfinished Love Theorem” was used for a set of questions in the 2001 Bursary English examination, tackled by thousands of young New Zealanders who intend going to university. It’s surely rare, anywhere in the world, for a poet under 30 to be honoured in this way. Thus Kate’s “Theorem” was an irresistible choice.

Allen Curnow, one of New Zealand’s literary colossi, died in September 2001, aged 90. His intellect remained vigorous till the end. In fact, his last collection, The Bells of Saint Babel’s, won the poetry section of the 2001 Montana New Zealand Book Awards. It would have been unthinkable not to include something from it. My avaricious first instinct was to seize the title poem, which runs for pages. On balance, I preferred “When and Where”, which might be read as Curnow’s valedictory message: “Gently as I stroke/ this child’s head, I’m thinking, ‘Goodbye!’/ It’s all yours now, the season’s crop.”

I have also included “A Pair of Sandals” by James K. Baxter. This is a bit cheeky, since “A Pair of Sandals” clearly wasn’t written in 2001. Baxter died in 1972. But the poem was published for the first time in a 2001 selection of Baxter’s work edited by Paul Millar. I wanted to salute the excellent work Millar has done in retrieving Baxter’s more fugitive poems and making them accessible to contemporary readers. I also wanted to acknowledge Baxter’s continuing presence as the country’s most powerful — and troubling — literary ghost. His radical social views are still argued over. One of the more attractive aspects of Baxter’s complex and not always agreeable personality was his steadfast championing of misfits, outcasts and underdogs. I hope Peter Olds won’t mind if I say his beautifully compassionate “Disjointed On Wellington Railway Station” is, in this regard, a Baxter poem.

An exceptionally versatile craftsman, Baxter tried his hand at virtually every verse-form at some point during his career. There was one form, however, he made especially his own (although Lawrence Durrell is said to be the inventor): the sonnet consisting of seven unrhymed couplets. Mention the word “sonnet” to a literary-minded New Zealander and chances are the Baxterian model will spring to mind ahead of the Petrarchan or Shakespearean versions. Since Baxter’s death, other New Zealand poets — C. K. Stead, Leigh Davis, Paula Green (very different writers from one another) — have taken up the form. Two Baxterian sonnets are included here: Anna Jackson’s short-lined “Watch” and Richard Reeve’s long-lined “Ranfurly”.

In March 2002, New Yorker Billy Collins visited New Zealand as a guest at Wellington’s biennial Writers and Readers Week and read his poems to a full house in one of the city’s biggest venues. I had a chance to interview him for the books pages I edit for the Sunday Star-Times. I guess it doesn’t define my taste very much to say I like Collins’ kind of poetry. Everybody does. But Collins is unusually lucid — and helpful — in defining the kind of poetry he writes. Almost invariably written in the first person, his poems address us sociably as fellow citizens, generally beginning in a low-key, conversational manner before heading somewhere unexpected. It’s a style of writing that’s common among New Zealand poets too. Look, for example, at Jenny Bornholdt’s “Being a Poet”, Bob Orr’s “The Tyre Shop” and Brian Turner’s “Semi-Kiwi”. That’s not to say we’re a nation of Billy Collins impersonators. The careers of the three poets I’ve just mentioned were all under way long before Collins became famous. An unbuttoned, vernacular style of writing suits the sort of country we are.

It’s not the only style at work in these islands, though. There are many other possibilities for poetry besides the conversational — narrative, dramatic, linguistic, devotional. My biases, of course, are bound to show (especially my inclination towards the Collinsesque), but I’ve tried to indicate the range of verse currently being written by New Zealanders. Bernadette Hall’s “The Lay Sister”, for instance, is a marvellously succinct little narrative. Campbell’s “It’s Greece” is a skilfully constructed dramatic monologue. Chris Price’s “Rose and fell” mediates with remarkable sure-footedness between medieval story-telling (there’s even a mention of Grendel) and gnomic postmodernism.

I wish you all happy reading! And I wish my successors good luck.


Iain Sharp
April 2002


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