Welcome to Best New Zealand Poems 2012
Introduction by 2012 editor Ian Wedde
First of all, my thanks to the people at the International Institute of Modern Letters (how can anyone not read IIML as a very large Roman numeral?) who invited me to be this year’s editor of Best (25) New Zealand Poems. I’m honoured, but more importantly have had a great time as the astonishing (approximately IIML) number of book parcels, email attachments, letters, web-links, and the occasional phone-call just kept on coming. My granddaughter Bella has a way of saying incredulously , ‘For me?’ that makes you believe she thinks she’s the luckiest girl in the world when she gets a pretzel or even a packet of Dora the Explorer sticking plasters. I won’t pretend I didn’t feel the need for plasters sometimes, especially as the poetry surge crashed over the levee just before Christmas; but the astonishment and pleasure I felt at the volume and variety of poems didn’t abate. My thanks also to Katie and Clare on Big Number Hill for their smooth transmission of poems both digital and analogue. My independent explorations and readings, especially of the rapidly expanding on-line resource of poetry, have been rewarding well beyond the call of duty and well beyond the geo-cultural limits of my brief, and I have the challenge of the task at hand to thank for that.
After having a quick remind-myself read through previous BNZP editors’ comments, I realise I’m about to add my note to a plaintive chord of doubt about the word ‘best’ in our brief. Iain Sharp, one of the conceptual founders of Best New Zealand Poems and its first editor, suggested in 2001 that ‘This is a little window display, not the whole shop’. The following year Elizabeth Smither ended her adroit and charming introduction with a disclaimer: ‘this is a mere touching of the surface’. In 2003, Robin Dudding’s response to the word ‘best’ was ‘Crikey!’ and he went on to recount how John Ashbery, the first editor of the American prototype, wanted to call his selection ‘75 OK American poems’. Emma Neale’s generous variation on the theme was to suggest that ‘the poets chosen here offer great consolation’ for the riches not included. A misgivings theme emerges.
Andrew Johnston probed these misgivings when he suggested that ‘you have to be open to the notion of many poetries, rather than one dominant idea of what makes a poem’—an idea Anne Kennedy and Robert Sullivan endorsed when they noticed the de facto absence from their 2006 selection of ‘the choreographed bodies of men and women moving to the charged language of a composer’—the reo Māori poetry of kapa haka; maybe it’s time for IIML to think podcast.
Paula Green cited Andrew Johnston’s introduction when, in hers, she preferred ‘a welcome range of possibilities’ to a ‘classical paradigm’. James Brown offered a reserve bench of five poems, with which some of his ‘best’ choices could be subbed out at half time. Robyn Marsack insisted, ‘that this isn't the last word on New Zealand poetry, it's a partial choice’; Chris Price in 2010 found the ‘b’ word ‘far too Olympian’; last year, Bernadette Hall confessed daringly of her selection of 25 poems that ‘I took each one as it grabbed me’.
Can these implicit misgivings generate an explicit consequence—preferably a positive one? Believing that poetry is a diverse practice is like believing there are different kinds of trees. What’s to believe? There are the different trees; there are the different poems. But let’s push ‘belief’ and see where it gets us.
What kinds of belief might we be arguing about (or ducking) here? That (as it were) patio yuccas are better than pohutukawa because more people buy them; conversely, that pohutukawa are better than yuccas because they are ‘ours’ ... ? No, stop now. Robert Creeley once over-extended the tree / poem analogy by suggesting that no one asks what a tree means (i.e. why would you ask what a poem ‘means’, when it just ‘is’?). And like him I’ve now backed myself into a tight corner with the tree / poem analogy. It’s time to show why I’ve gone this far with it.
I believe that poetry is a diverse practice not just (redundantly) because its diversity is self-evident, but because that diversity is what makes discussion and, from time to time, heated argument, inevitable. I like the forest as well as some of the trees; the collective diversity as well as its individual distinctions. I don’t see individual choice as critically reductive but as an invitation to discussion. What might some of these discussions be about?
Writers are sometimes admonished to ‘find your own voice’, or, about as often in these post-original times, to lose it. This is a less banal challenge than one to find (or lose) say, your own hand, given that we share a language, and within that, subsets of dialect, accent, slang, schools (aka belief systems) of poetry, and what have you. In addition, as poets, what we write or speak will inevitably be inflected in one way or another by what (and how) other poets have written and spoken. I like ‘voices’ that make something of these challenges. Here are a few.
In James Brown’s ‘Stan and the Cellphone’ we seem to be reading a simple, touching transcription of a bed-time chat between two boys, one younger and scared, the other older and prepared to humour his kid brother. We know it’s the disenchanted adult poet who is articulating this dialogue, and the tension between disenchantment and guilelessness is what makes the ‘voice’ interesting. The poem is funny, too, but this is because of Brown’s transcription—his voicing—not because the kids think their story is funny. Like Brown, we are the amused over-hearers of the kids talking. And then, at the end of the poem, something special happens: we bump across a familiarly maladroit spoken sentence, ‘I do an experiment I sometimes do,’ and slip into the voiced space of the younger brother’s night-terror. Not funny anymore, and somehow Brown’s presence seems to have left the dark bedroom where the younger brother can ‘hear a difference’.
In David Howard’s poem ‘The Whole of Boredom’, the ‘you’ (Eddie Rex) is at once an objectified protagonist and, we’re pretty sure, the speaking poet himself; the poet is thus addressing himself and, therefore, hearing himself. This reflexive persona, bored and embittered, lists his anthems (‘There’s a little black spot on the sun today’—The Police) and notes that ‘language/ twists what it insists upon’. The twisting words in Eddie’s/ the poet’s mouth also recommend a sceptical resistance to speaking ‘of a tree’s dreams, a river’s virtue./ Instead mention the port’s noise, which is ours.’
Aleksandra Lane’s first two books were published in Serbian, her native language. There’s an attentiveness or even asperity in her English that may be a result of her bilingual voice, though one shouldn’t speculate about that. The sequence ‘There are no ghosts in America’ uses Serbian proverbs for its titles (for example, ‘Who talks a lot either knows a lot or lies a lot’) and, in addition, recycles the words of the Serbian-American inventor and showman Nikola Tesla. The voice uttering Tesla’s anecdotal fragments seems to be always on the verge of eliding drolly with Lane’s, and thus eliding his experiences with hers at some level.
Sam Sampson’s poem ‘All the Everlasting Cataracts’ is in part a delicate, precise, re-voiced sampling of John Keats’s uncompleted epic poem ‘Hyperion’, which Keats abandoned in part because he felt it had become too Miltonic; the ‘voice’ thing has been around for a while. A later version, ‘Hyperion: A Dream’, also remained unfinished. At times, Sampson’s forensic improvisations on Keats’s failed attempts to get his poem right—to get Romanticism’s quest for the principles of truth and beauty right—read like an attentive copy-editor’s notes: ‘a stream went voiceless by (streamed).’
Sometimes the poems themselves seem to have decided whom they wished to talk to. Sarah Jane Barnett’s poem ‘Mountains’, with its mordant play of geology and relationship (‘Over time she dissolves mountains by breathing’), has thus found itself next to some sections from Tony Beyer’s ‘Taranaki Gate Series’:
& the slow moan
of the river dragging
the size of a car
behind the house.
Did these serendipitous conversations pre-empt my editorial decisions? Hard to say. Of course, each poem is there on its merits—but their attractiveness is enhanced by the pleasure of reading (hearing) them converse together, and I’m not entirely responsible for that.
I want poetry to do what other kinds of writing don’t, or can’t, but I get claustrophobic when it burnishes its shingle too brightly; I prefer subversion to propriety. Zarah Butcher-McGunnigle’s poem ‘Wheels fall off to create drama’ has the appearance of a prose paragraph but, rapidly switching directions whenever a linear narrative track begins to open up, thwarts the purposefulness of prose and arrives instead at a question robbed of its interrogative tone: ‘What’s wrong with this picture.’—no question mark. Geoff Cochrane’s list, ‘Summer’, subverts both the useful list and the Christopher Smart-ish psalm-form of lines beginning ‘For’. Helen Heath’s ‘Postcards’ are and aren’t postcards: their deft couplets have the paradoxical effect of expanding and focusing the language until we ‘see’ as much as hear what is being posted.
Anne Kennedy in ‘Forty Years of Habitation’ has written a love poem that has the appearance of a diagnostic list (of qualities or attributes), but that also resembles the kinds of self-reminding jottings we might leave behind in a diary, or on the pad by the phone. Gregory O’Brien’s ‘Ode to Thought’ could have been a witty short essay—and still is, but with the pace and rhythm of its thinking about thought orchestrated in lines that transform the writing into a score to think along with. Kerrin P Sharpe’s ‘The Alchemy of Snow’ is, by contrast, a kind of anti-essay, an essay constructed of false starts and non-sequiturs, as if a substantial prose work had declined to move past a succession of bright, initiating ideas ; and it is also a kind of anti-haiku sequence, whose wry attempts at ‘suchness’ haplessly derail. Its brief fragment-sections conclude with a tiny couplet in which ‘She’ (snow) ‘is utterly faithful/ to the blackbird’—a throw, I imagine, to the snow and the blackbird with which Wallace Stevens closed ‘Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird’, but also a glimpse of the partially snowed-in personification (‘she’).
I enjoy longer forms or sequences, and there are some among the 25 poems here. Not all are included in their entirety. Richard von Sturmer’s ‘14 Book of Equanimity Verses’ are from a sequence of 100, inspired by the Zen Buddhist Book of Equanimity (their conversation with Sharpe’s ‘The Alchemy of Snow’ is entertaining). Michele Leggott’s ‘some day’ reads like one part of a longer family biography. John Gallas’s ‘The Complete Guide to a Few Things on Efate, Vanuatu’ seems only to pause, not stop, at section k (about half way through the alphabet). Andrew Johnston’s four sub-verses are from a sequence titled with radio alphabet codes (‘Alpha’, ‘Bravo’, ‘Charlie’ etc)—I believe he’s up to ‘Sierra’ and the final complete result may be called ‘Are You Receiving Me?’.
I’ve included the whole of Murray Edmond’s tanka and haiku sequence with its interspersed short prose sections, from his book Three Travels; but sadly Joanna Forsberg’s wonderful photograph of two horses near Pureora can’t be included; check the black horse out if you can, and see how you feel about ‘voice’ subsequently. Published in a beautifully crafted limited edition of 75 and printed by Tara McLeod for The Holloway Press, the book represents one margin at which poetry is still published, while John Gallas’s ‘The Complete Guide to a Few Things on Efate, Vanuatu’, published on the Carcanet blog (with Gallas’s own photographs) stands at another margin, a click or two out from now ubiquitous on-line poetry journals.
Edmond’s tanka-and-prose form also directs us to a discussion about translation, version, and imitation. It would be inappropriate to include translations in this selection (though, as Eliot Weinberger insists, translation is crucial to the ongoing vitality and relevance of poetry). But the 25 of 2012 already include such cross-fertilisations as Edmond’s relocations of tanka to a central North Island landscape where the occasion arises to dedicate an oriori or farewell to Hone Tuwhare; the pidgin ‘skuismi’ (Gallas); the Greek language-ghosts in ‘Postcards’ (Heath); Lane’s traces of Serbian; the koan-like verses of Sharpe and von Sturmer; and the Samoan presences in Albert Wendt’s ‘The Ko’olau’—so it’s hardly a big stretch to make space for Karl Stead’s ‘Four Versions of “Motets” by Eugenio Montale’.
‘Versions’—or ‘Imitations’ in the case of Robert Lowell in 1961—are the stock-in-trade of poetry that seeks to enrich and extend the possibilities opened up by the admonition with which we began this summary of possible discussions: ‘find (or lose) your own voice’. Four translations into English of Montale’s most famous (and most translated) poem, ‘L’Anguilla’ (‘The Eel’), are added as an appendix to the review in the New York Review Books (November 2012) of William Arrowsmith’s translations of Montale (The Collected Poems of Eugenio Montale, 1925–1977, Norton, 2012). They are by Robert Lowell, William Arrowsmith, Jonathan Galassi (the NYRB reviewer) and Paul Muldoon. They are remarkably different from each other; and yet Montale’s poem is immediately recognisable. Each poet’s ‘own voice’ is of course what makes the difference (Montale once suggested that Lowell’s ‘Imitations’ made obvious what he, Montale, preferred to keep within the grain of the poem)—yet each has also lost something of that personal voice and found something of Montale’s presence (ingrained or not) via, in Galassi’s clever phrase, ‘the soluble English of the moment’.
Several of the poets included in the selection of best poems for 2012 haven’t been mentioned in this short overview. I’m happy to acknowledge Ashleigh Young, Frankie McMillan, and Siobhan Harvey; and to welcome some familiar voices in Kate Camp, Peter Olds, and Harry Ricketts.
Adapting Emma Neale’s courteous disclaimer, I’d like to say not only that ‘the poets chosen here offer great consolation’ for the riches not included, but also that I have been luckier than readers of the final selection will be: I got to enter the forest and wander around in there.
Finally, I hope you enjoy these poems as much as I have.
Ian Wedde has published fourteen collections of poetry, the most recent being Good Business in 2009. A new collection, The Lifeguard, will be published by Auckland University Press in May 2013. He co-edited The Penguin Book of New Zealand Verse (1985) and The Penguin Book of Contemporary New Zealand Poetry Ngā Kupu Tītohu o Aotearoa (1989). He has won New Zealand Book Awards for both poetry and fiction and is the author of six novels, as well as collections of essays and art books. His awards include the Katherine Mansfield Fellowship (2005), a Distinguished Alumni Award from the University of Auckland (2006), the Michael King/University of Auckland Writers’ Fellowship (2009), and the Landfall Essay Prize (2010). He received an ONZM in 2010, and is New Zealand Poet Laureate 2011—2013.
New Zealand Book Council writer file
New Zealand Electronic Poetry Centre writer file
New Zealand Literature File
New Zealand Poet Laureate blog
The Arts Foundation writer file
Interview with Ian Wedde at the Scottish Poetry Library