Welcome to Best New Zealand Poems 2002

Introduction by 2002 editor Elizabeth Smither

2002 was a year many wished to see end. In her editorial for the Fall issue of Harvard Review Christina Thompson wrote: ‘Interestingly, however, we seem to have entered a period in which the timeless (love & death; war & peace) has become topical; or maybe it’s the other way around, and what passes for current events endures so long it begins to seem eternal’. Certainly 2003 will not escape the effects of its predecessor.

In New Zealand, following the death of Allen Curnow in 2001, there was the sad loss of Alan Brunton and Bill Sewell. Allen used to speak of the visceral nature of true poetry. ‘Try poking it with a stick and see if it’s alive,’ was Allen’s test for a poem and it has been my first line of selection. ‘I want a poem to read at a funeral, about fishing,’ a middle-aged woman said to me recently in the library. In the presence of death, we need poems. Also missed is the young poet, Simon Williamson.

The much larger, more generous to the editor, The Best American Poetry 1988- has been a benchmark. Its string of distinguished editors, its restricting of poets to a poem apiece – rather like the once and for all session at Auckland University Press’s Seeing Voices Festival last August – confers on each poem the status of a gift. How much have I enjoyed reading to a slightly-inhibited class of aspiring poets Richard Frost’s description of his brother as ‘you sack of black rat’s balls’ or Beth Ann Fennelly’s acerbic ‘Poem Not To Be Read at Your Wedding’.

                                  Well, Carmen, I would rather
                 give you your third set of steak knives
                 than tell you what I know.

Or finding Billy Collins just sitting there, among his peers. How exhilarating to run your eye down the titles, like admiring wrapping paper. ‘The Poem That Was Once Called “Desperate” But Is Now Striving to Become The Perfect Love Poem’ or ‘Sunday, Tarzan in his hammock’.

Other collections may come and go: Ten poems to change your life (how can there be only ten? What was the starting quality?) or 101 poems, to help you understand men (and women): helpful chapters on Why Doesn’t He Ring, The Bastard? and Men Have Feelings Too, but The Best American Poetry is like a great diverse country seen from the air. Well, New Zealand, for twenty-five poems’ worth, can be that too: smaller, less brash in the title department, but as diverse and interesting as anywhere on earth. The only problem is the twenty-five hooded ones meeting in the crypt with candles and the Shorter Oxford Dictionary open on a lectern. With poets, as they regularly find at Harbourfront when next year’s nominations are called for, it is always easier (and safer) to choose among the dead.

Apart from the stick test, there is probably no prescription an editor can provide on behalf of a choice. It is the poem that creates its inclusion. The quarrel with ourselves, that Yeats asserted, may be less exhausting than the quarrel with the material or the search for it. I have often thought each poem has a will of its own which it is keen to exert: everyone who writes poetry knows the serious poem that turns little or light and the little poem that grows huge. I have always liked William Empson’s saying: ‘Poems are written with the kind of joke you find in hymns’.

Sometimes a choice contradicts a popular impression: Karl Stead’s lovely, still, and lyrical ‘Gotland, Midsummer’ (the poet totally removed and the night left to butterflies and moths) or sea-loving Bob Orr’s displacement to the Waikato.

As for language: it should fit the crime. Chris Orsman is clearly aware of the demands of scientific writing in his birthday tribute to the New Zealand scientist, Maurice Wilkins. You can feel the scientist looking over his shoulder as his biography is shaped into stanzas. The doctor into poet connection (an honourable tradition) is well represented by Glenn Colquhoun who prescribes ‘four black wheels . . . one siren . . . three sheets . . . two flashing lights’ for a woman who faints at a poetry reading, and Rae Varcoe, whose bio, in Sport 29, states she is ‘writing from the wreckage of the Health Reforms’. There is also a medical condition underlying Diana Bridge’s tender poem ‘The Wallet’ where her brother’s ‘old brown wallet / nudged to near white at the edges’ is re-filled with a sister’s love.

Louise Wrightson gives us a scrap of life as Kabul burns and we know which scrap it is we prefer. Jo Thorpe exults in a line of pink roses under her windscreen wipers, and, continuing the flower connection, Michele Leggott turns a winter moment and three friends disembarking from the Devonport ferry into three perfect white roses. All these connections were arbitrary but poems poked into a large white envelope and left to ripen do seem to talk to one another. The poem in the envelope that does the most running around is Murray Edmond’s ‘Voyager, after Apollinaire’ as he circles the globe like Puck in search of Alan Brunton and re-creates his amazing energy. Apollinaire crops up as well in Jenny Bornholdt’s ‘Blue Shirts, Descending’, proving that joy can be caught.

Bill Sewell casts a Northern Man look at ‘Old Man Range’ and finds it open to interpretation. Kendrick Smithyman captures the essence of poetry in ‘Cutty Sark’ and, as always, has all his facts correct. Kate Camp underlines the importance of Brylcreem to a certain New Zealand political party. Robert Sullivan soars over a statue in chains. Paula Green is tender towards stranded young men; Andrew Johnston fierce and tender (each word like a tombstone) towards his ‘Great Aunt’; Sonja Yelich towards school teachers and child number 4. Rachel Bush praises and creates a generation of ‘Strong Mothers’; Emma Neale shows the underside, in a poem like a little short story, of a brooch. Michael Harlow conjures a surreal crematorium service: take note of the widow’s way with a spoon. David Howard has

                 Seven days
                 to straighten
                 out. Away

                 you go,

while Vincent O’Sullivan creates a tangled rococo leaving in ‘The Child in the Gardens: Winter’. Anne Kennedy is unsentimental about maladjusted cats. Anna Smaill watches a sea wall at daybreak.

In the end we seem to have come down to birth and death, roses and departures, tenderness and regret, the sea and a river, tributes and medicine, ‘war & peace’, just as Christina Thompson supposed in her editorial. As expected these poems reflect the year that has gone. A famous New York designer was interviewed on TV recently. ‘What is your secret?’ the interviewer asked. The designer thought for a moment and then explained it was a question of choosing what you love, confident in the knowledge that whatever it is, it will live happily alongside your previous choices. I hope this is the case with Best New Zealand Poems 2002. For those who hit on the website, I wish you happy reading and assure you this is a mere touching of the surface.

Elizabeth Smither
March 2003

PS If I can sneak a last poem in, as an editor’s privilege. Over-populated by animals, New Zealanders are great consumers of pies. Here is Jon Bridges’ ‘Poem for the Beasts’ (NZ Listener, September 28, 2002)


                 At 100 million pies a year
                 It’s lucky sheep and cows and deer
                 Stick up their hooves and volunteer
                 To be inside our pies

                 They come on four legs
                 Wrapped in leather
                 The sheep, the cow, the ram, the wether.
                 Hustle, bustle, flock together
                 Keen to be in pies

                 From countryside to countryside
                 One hundred to a truck they ride
                 And each one bursts with joy and pride
                 To know they’re making pies

                 For us it’s just a tasty snack
                 They give their legs and bits of back
                 They know they’ll never get them back
                 They’re proud to be in pies

                 Remember what comes wrapped in crust
                 Before was wrapped in wool and thus
                 Remember them, for they can’t remember us.
                 The beasts that fill our pies

                 Thank you guys


Elizabeth Smither has published twelve collections of poetry, as well as novels and short stories. She was the first woman to become Te Mata poet laureate (2001-3). Her laureate collection, Red Shoes, has just been published by Godwit and a novel, The Sea Between Us will be published by Penguin in May. Her poetry collections include the prize-winning A Pattern of Marching (New Zealand Book Award for Poetry, 1990) and The Lark Quartet (Montana New Zealand Book Award for Poetry, 2000). Like the previous editor, Iain Sharp, she works as a librarian.

Elizabeth’s interests include cricket (she would secretly like to be a lady cricket commentator), travel (she has just been to Paris), spending time with friends, wine and conversation, film, theatre, and sporadic essays at gardening.