Aotearoa/New Zealand holds fewer people than Minnesota, Singapore, or the Republic of Ireland; when people from outside the country think about the country, its poets are rarely the first thing that come to mind. But maybe they should be: for decades these islands have supported poets the rest of the world ought to read.
Though verse in English from Aotearoa/New Zealand dates back almost as far as European settlement, the first poets who succeeded in making both durable poems and a distinctive national literature were the ones organized, in the forties and fifties, around the magazine Landfall, led by the poet and editor Charles Brasch (1909–1973). These poets (especially Allen Curnow) emphasized the nation’s landscapes and its location, far from cultural hubs. Curnow famously compared himself to the skeleton of an extinct giant bird, the moa, native to New Zealand: “Not I, some child, born in a marvelous year / Will learn the trick of standing upright here.” Curnow’s peer and rival James K. Baxter (1926–1972) embraced Catholic faith, Alcoholics Anonymous, radical anticapitalist politics, and what he took to be Māori culture and attitudes, founding a commune, writing sonnets about it, and becoming — almost against his will — New Zealand’s first poet of world-historical stature.
And yet the story of poetry in Aotearoa/New Zealand today could almost begin at Baxter’s death, with hippies, small presses, and young, aspirationally international writers in Auckland and Wellington who were less attentive to Auden or Yeats than to O’Hara, Olson, or Creeley, who first visited the country in 1976 (he met his wife Penelope there). Ian Wedde, Michele Leggott, and Bill Manhire got their start there and then; Leggott, who studied in Canada during the eighties, returned to Auckland and has flourished there, publishing (at last count) nine books of poems, and founding the New Zealand Electronic Poetry Centre. Eighties Auckland also nurtured a full-fledged avant-garde, with procedural or overtly experimental books by Wystan Curnow, Roger Horrocks, and Leigh Davis. Manhire built, in the eighties and nineties, by far the country’s most influential creative writing program, at Victoria University in Wellington, home of the literary journals Sport and Turbine | Kapohau.
Manhire’s “Milky Way Bar,” another national signature poem, begins with a joke that is not really a joke: “I live at the edge of the universe, / like everybody else.” You could do worse than trace serious, book-based poetry over the past few decades through Manhire’s and Leggott’s careers, through Auckland-centric experiment and Wellington-centric lyric, but you would be leaving a great deal out; Catholic culture and tradition continued to infuse the serious lyric efforts of the literary scholar Vincent O’Sullivan and the underrated poet and visual artist Joanna Margaret Paul (1945–2003) along with her friend (and literary executor) Bernadette Hall. Paul and Hall both made their careers on the South Island; so did the rough-hewn, and popular, Brian Turner (not the US veteran).
The writers named above are uniformly white, or Pākehā (of European descent), but poetry in Aotearoa/New Zealand certainly is not. Often called the first book of poems in English by a Māori writer, Hone Tuwhare’s No Ordinary Sun appeared in 1964; poets and other writers took part in the Māori Renaissance, the political and cultural empowerment that began in the seventies and continues today. Some tangata whenua (Māori) poets carry on ancient, living traditions of orature in te reo Māori (the Māori language). Those represented here span traditional narratives and current political concerns, from Maui the trickster to the Mana Party. Some, such as Hinemoana Baker, integrate compact and international modernism with local and polyglot heritage.
Auckland is now the largest Pasifika city in the world, and the emergence of Pasifika poetry in New Zealand — which began with Albert Wendt in the seventies — has more recently highlighted vivid, direct, performance-oriented styles, celebrating (in Selina Tusitala Marsh’s lines) “the calabash breakers / the hinemoas / the mauis / ... /the trouble makers.” One breakthrough book here is Tusiata Avia’s Wild Dogs Under My Skirt (2004); another is Marsh’s own first book, Fast Talking PI (2009).
The dominant styles and tones of New Zealand poetry at the moment emerged from the Victoria University of Wellington (VUW) of the nineties; its authoritative figures (though their reticence makes it hard to call them authorities) include Jenny Bornholdt and James Brown, once Manhire’s students. All are conversational but careful, intimate but diffident, patient enough to give listeners space to reply. I like to imagine these poems as (in Bornholdt’s words) “Heavenly suitors”:
Come with us, theysay. Weather won’tharm you.Where we livethere is nothingbirds don’t like doingand everyone isdeciduous.
Compared to these writers, their students, and their stylistic heirs, descendants of the Auckland-centric avant-garde have found it harder to publish books, though some fare well in small magazines, or overseas. Newly visible, on the other hand, are bold book-length projects that look far outside the country for models. Chris Tse and Gregory Kan, for example, might be best understood as poets of a Pacific Rim that spans from Arthur Yap’s Singapore to D.A. Powell’s California. Hera Lindsay Bird — whose effusive inventions have made her by far the most popular of New Zealand’s younger poets — might seem to have come out of nowhere, or directly from Twitter and Tumblr, though she has clear literary models (Chelsey Minnis, for example) in the US and UK. And yet she attended VUW too.
The poetry of Aotearoa/New Zealand now finds urbane connections to the rest of the globe, and to the nation’s traditions of visual art: its poets seem uncommonly likely to double as visual artists, curators, or art critics, among them Paul, Horrocks, Wystan Curnow, Wedde, and Gregory O’Brien. The poetry also speaks to the country’s unique array of birds, its wild and cultivated flora (pōhutukawa; so many types of ferns), and the fantastic extent of its biome, from northern subtropics to the snow-clad south, with its staging points for Antarctic research. (The more you see of that biome, the more you realize how much the Earth stands to lose.) Poems in this issue seem especially fond of coastlines, beaches, and other natural boundaries; poets arrive by plane, they leave for the ice, they joke about tourists who can’t stop searching for hobbits, and they imagine a future that depends on the natural — as well as the historical — past.
Historians are constrained to look for the representative; poets seek the exceptional. When I lived in Christchurch in 2016–17, I had been reading poetry from Aotearoa/New Zealand for decades, but I did not understand how much there was, nor how the poets responded to such visible, audible, New Zealand topics as Irish immigrant history, the East Coast sunrise, the memory of world wars, or the shattering Canterbury earthquakes of 2011–12. I still do not understand those matters as a native or permanent resident would — but my coeditors do. It’s a small country, to be sure, but its size may encourage versatility, or prevent overspecialization. It’s also a secure country, a complex country, a beautiful country (and not just in its wild places), a highly literate country, a country that holds together when others are falling apart. Its poets stand for a great many things, inviting, challenging, sometimes contradictory things. They have learned from one another, as we hope the work here shows; it’s time for more readers elsewhere to listen to them.
— Stephanie Burt
Rudyard Kipling’s qualified ovation to Auckland — “Last, loneliest, loveliest, exquisite, apart” — isolated yet exceptional — taps a vein of powerful ambivalence many New Zealanders have felt about our country. I’m not entirely sure what to call the condition I’m trying to explain. Anxious self-satisfaction? Narcissistic provincialism? All I know is that it exemplifies a contradiction in Pākehā culture as old as our settler majority’s efforts to make Aotearoa/New Zealand a better version of Britain. “This is the best little country on earth,” we’d boast, but our shameful secret was that it often only felt so after receiving external validation, particularly from someone British. It is a joke with a hard kernel of truth that even today the first question a visitor to Aotearoa/New Zealand will be asked is, “So what do you think of the place?”
I see this condition as largely a product of settler deracination and its complex consequences. Aotearoa/New Zealand’s colonials sought a better country for a better life, and by most measures that is what they found. Yet leaving home left a legacy of pain, which has caused our settler culture ongoing worry about its place in the world. At its saddest, this pain manifested as a misplaced allegiance to Britain that compelled thousands to return to Europe to die in two world wars; among them my half-Norwegian uncle, a farm boy from Leeston, whose RAF bomber was destroyed over the English Channel, and who is now buried in France.
Why preface this selection of recent poetry from Aotearoa/New Zealand with a view of our history that will seem to some irrelevant or contentious? I think because, as a New Zealand critic, editor, and anthologist for now twenty-five years, I find this history continuing to exert influence near the heart of our writing. We’re often unconscious of it, but as I consider the many poets whose work I admire — Māori, Pākehā, Pasifika, immigrant — time and again I hear them responding in various ways to the anxieties and attitudes which have for so long affected the way we present ourselves to the world. I have had poets refute the label “New Zealand poet,” and in so doing categorize themselves more completely than those for whom it is less of an issue. I have witnessed poets write compulsively against dominant modes, as if opposition is the single alternative. I have debated with fellow scholars, editors, and anthologists why it is that when we select and critique, these influences from the past seem always present. And I have noticed, even while working on this selection, the way new and diverse voices still reckon with our history’s powerful and compulsive outcomes and narratives.
I hope this special issue of poetry from Aotearoa/New Zealand represents another step forward (or away) from whatever has made some of us anxious about our place in the world, proud as we are of our country. Working with Stephanie and Chris, it has seemed that for us all the context for selection has been poetry first, national and regional distinctiveness second. Perhaps that says as much about the breadth and inclusiveness of world poetry now as it does about the range and quality of this snapshot of new poetry from Aotearoa/New Zealand in 2018. What do you think of it so far?
— Paul Millar
Charles Brasch’s poem “The Islands” delivered a catchphrase much recycled in twentieth-century critical conversations about Aotearoa/ New Zealand art and literature. “Distance looks our way,” wrote Brasch, registering a sense of remoteness and perhaps also a desire for recognition from the places where, one imagines, the real action is happening. That feeling hasn’t entirely evaporated from the culture, as the references to famous international journals in Tim Upperton’s poem in this issue perhaps suggest — and perhaps that’s how some Minnesotans feel about New York or Los Angeles. But there has always been more than one “island story” at work here. Anyone who feels truly at home on an island and has been raised with its stories is secure at the center of their universe. In the Pacific, the ocean and sky and the space in-between are positive space, as the poems of Albert Wendt, Robert Sullivan, and Jessie Puru suggest.
There’s still a bit of national pride invested in success elsewhere, hence the audible delight this year when Ashleigh Young’s essay collection received a Windham-Campbell Prize from Yale University. Sometimes our readiness to be flattered by attention from powerful elsewheres lands us in strange contortions, though, as Murray Edmond records (Google “Hobbit law” for the backdrop). But on the whole, twenty-first-century New Zealand poets are a little more at ease about the importance of their own conversations and dialects than some of their forebears.
Navigating textual space is a far less effortful business than sailing across oceans once was, and poets find their communities of interest everywhere. If all of us are now in virtual “speaking distance,” though, it is still possible to speak past each other, whether abroad or at home, like the historical protagonists of Michele Leggott’s poem.
It’s a productive cacophony, nonetheless: poets are free to criticize their society or soar beyond it, to build their nest of materials gathered here, there, and everywhere. Aotearoa/New Zealand now sings with a chorus of so many voices that we might easily have assembled a completely different but equally compelling list of contributors. There are scintillating finds to be made beyond these pages; a few of them are noted in the commentary pieces by Gregory O’Brien and Daisy Fried.
“The poetry is in the bird,” writes Bill Manhire, as if to glance sideways at Talia Marshall’s essay drawing a line between the American linnet and the native species of these islands. So, whakarongo ake au ki te tangi a te manu: listen to the language of the birds. We hope you will also take the chance to talk back and tell us what you hear.
— Chris Price
Stephanie (also Steph; formerly Stephen) Burt is a poet, literary critic, and professor. In 2012, the New York Times called Burt “one of the most influential poetry critics of [her] generation.” Burt grew up around Washington, DC and earned a BA from Harvard and PhD from Yale. She has published four collections of poems: Advice...
Paul Millar is the head of humanities and creative arts at the University of Canterbury.
Chris Price’s latest poetry collection is Beside Herself (Auckland University Press, 2016). She teaches creative writing at Victoria University, Wellington.