Welcome to Best New Zealand Poems 2013

Introduction by 2013 editors Jane Stafford and Mark Williams


From 2009 until its publication at the end of 2012 we worked together editing a large historically based anthology of New Zealand literature. In the course of this torrid but not wholly unenjoyable time we pondered our responsibility to the concept ‘best’ as it related to our task. It seemed to us then that ‘best’ was a useful but not wholly over-riding test to apply to the texts—poetry, but also fiction, drama, and non-fiction—that we wanted to include. We had, we felt, an obligation to set out the ‘best’ in an aesthetic sense, those pieces of writing marked by clarity, confidence and rich language that both confirmed and upset our literary, cultural and existential preconceptions. But we were also charged with representing the literature of New Zealand over a period of two hundred years and were aware, firstly, that writing might be significant without being good, let alone the ‘best’; and, secondly, that what was considered ‘best’ in, say, the 1870s—Alfred Domett’s 500-page poem Ranolf and Amohia, for example—might seem repulsive and unreadable in the twenty-first century. So we worked within a set of sometimes competing criteria: the test of what was representative (indeed, often in the very early sections, simply what was there) as well as what was enlightening, well made and memorable. And in such a lengthy narrative, with such space to play with, we looked for what was influential, what was part of a developing thread or conversation which might last decades or generations or centuries. We were concerned, then, with connections rather than simply the indivdual ‘best’. If ‘best’ was a problem, it was after we had put together our selection, during in the permissions process, when a few writers felt that what they saw as their ‘best’ had not been included; and after publication when some reviewers misunderstood the purpose of an anthology of this kind and felt that some of whom they considered our ‘best’ writers had been omitted.

It is with considerable relief and enjoyment, then, that we have undertaken this project, Best New Zealand Poems 2013. How liberating it is, paradoxically, to be confined to one year’s slim bulk of poetry. No need to be representative. If a significant author is between collections, no need to worry. No need to fret about how many South Islanders, how many women, how many expatriates, which groups and styles and approaches are on display. Over a decade or a century or a literary history these issues become relevant; over one year they are not and cannot be. Best New Zealand Poems 2013 is, comparatively, like a snapshot, not a narrative. We have a year, and we have an adjective, ‘best’.

And yet—there’s something worrying about the word ‘best’. It flows too complacently from the pens of literary middlemen now forgotten. It invites satirical response, as in Denis Glover’s roughing up, in ‘The Arraignment of Paris’, of Charles Marris, editor of New Zealand Best Poems of his day. ‘Best’ implies impending canonicity, the exclusion of the chancy or experimental, of voices from outside those literary institutions, academies and publication sites that have placed themselves at the centre of national literary life. As a process, finding the ‘best’ is haunted by ambiguity. What understanding of ‘best’ is on offer here: the most dazzling, the most difficult, the most thoughtful, the most original, the most seducing, the most provoking? What are the qualities that detract from inclusion in the category? Whose ‘best’ are we concerned with: that of the poets, the editors, places of publication, the critical environment, or the reading public at large? What criteria are being employed to select the ‘best’: those of the year in question, those of all time, those of the editors’ particular theoretical positions or personal preferences? Does ‘best’ necessarily imply homogeneity—that all poems will relate to a set of criteria in the same way—or are there a plurality of ‘bests’?

We feel that such critical discriminations must come after the encounter with the text, that you must be a reader before you can be a critic. (We are both by profession and inclination critics, a group we feel are undervalued and often despised, one that New Zealand needs more of; they are, after all, simply careful, experienced and alert readers.) So, we read—three very large cardboard cartons of paper and a pile of books besides—before arriving at our principles of selection. At first we read separately, and those poems that we deemed ‘possible’ we read aloud to each other (the only audience we could reasonably expect to command) as well as considering them on the page—both contexts being important, although some styles of poetry gesture to one or the other medium, the voice or the page.

What did we find? Firstly, absences. In reading through the work for 2013 we observed a decline in nature, or Nature, as a subject or source of inspiration or discovery, and with it a decline in the poetry of place—local place, that is. This is a radical shift: for the nineteenth and much of twentieth centuries a tension between being here and writing about it was central to literary activity; hence landscape—in some sense or another—has been voiced in New Zealand poetry in styles ranging from Romantic to high Victorian to modernist to postmodern, each successive mode dragging with it the ghosts of previous styles. But in poems by our most alert writers—like Curnow or Smithyman—history, biology, memory, daily life and practice as well as topographical features are constitutive of the landscape and are inextricably worked into it. Anne Kennedy’s ‘Flood Monologue’ is a poem, reminiscent of Seamus Heaney’s ‘Gifts of Rain’, that embeds history in nature. Is this a landscape poem? If it is, it is a landscape that is peopled, that consists of much more than surface.

There were, we found, surprisingly few poems that engaged with politics. Perhaps the public and generalised voice of political poems does not sit with the personal, confessional and lyrical mode—of which there were many instances. But we were surprised that five years shadowed by perhaps the greatest financial crash in human history hadn’t produced a more explicit political presence.

Few Māori poets were in evidence this year—perhaps fiction rather than poetry has commanded their attention—although Hinemoana Baker’s ‘Rope’, with a note acknowledging Blackfeet writer James Welch’s 2008 novel Winter in the Blood, points to a trend in overseas literature towards global indigeneity as a writing position. Pasifika poets were a commanding and innovative presence this year, generally working at the edge of the political, as with Selina Tusitala Marsh’s collection Dark Sparring. We resisted, reluctantly, including her poems about kick-boxing, although we admire the way they have extended the possibilities of poetic subject matter. While all of the poets we have chosen work with an acute and discriminating sense of language, language poetry per se seems not to interest them. And the language play, pastiche and referential irony that featured in previous years is largely absent. In 2013 most poets are serious and mean what they say.

Secondly—and here is where ‘best’ becomes subjective or at the very least a tendentious test—there were a number of tropes in the poetry we read that we felt were unproductive to the point of self-indulgence. The dictum ‘write what you know’ can lead to the poem which can be précised ‘I have a boring life but find moments of wonder in it’, a style marked by whimsy, forced celebration and easy, vacant referentiality. Narratives of something significant and arresting—often involving death—which derive their force from the event rather than the way it is described are another means of side-stepping the craft of writing. Allied to these modes is the ‘I have travelled overseas and responded sensitively’ poem—again, a record of experience but a style of poem that too easily becomes a literary version of the slide evening. One longs for the Barry Humphries style of insensitive postcolonial travel as a bracing antidote. Travel poems—combining ‘what you know’ and ‘what you don’t know’—are dangerous unless you do something with them other than register impressionistically the curiosities encountered: Gregory O’Brien’s paean of praise to the hat-makers of Valparaiso, ‘Sombrereria’, does just this with its arch voice and subtle complications of narrative direction; Ashleigh Young’s ‘In the Square’ mixes precise personal and geographical details with imagery that teeters on the surreal.

We also noted poems about childhood by deeply nostalgic 25-year-olds, of which there were a surprising number, nicely cast in a reverse mirror in Fleur Adcock’s volume, Glass Wings, with its poetry of age, memory and decay. We blame Wordsworth for the valorising of childhood which has bedevilled New Zealand literature for at least a century, although the subject is nicely distanced and given an almost gothic twist in Rachel O’Neill’s ‘The children have grown’; or in Selina Tusitala Marsh’s ‘Page 11’, written in the form of a pick-a-path book, which deals with children dealing with adult uncertainty, illness and death; or Chris Tse’s haunted, disappointed star-gazing boy in ‘Astronaut’. Such indirection, leading away from emotion, is a powerful literary tool. Wordsworth’s description of poetry as ‘the spontaneous overflow of powerful feelings’, one of the more widely adhered to definitions, is not always helpful. We prefer W.H. Auden’s ‘clear expression of mixed feelings’. Linguistic clarity, open-minded confusion and intensity are what good poetry relies on, not spontaneity and certainly not overflow.

And there were writing-class exercise poems, a kind that has spread through the numerous creative writing programmes now dignifying (or, according to the sceptics, decorating) our universities and polytechnics. This is a ramifying genre which has moved from poems written within a prescribed frame or to a fixed formula (no bad things in themselves), to poems about the experience of being in a creative writing class, or to poems about the experience of teaching a creative writing class. In other words, the range is familiar, not because of the putatively ubiquitous and insidious influence of Manhirish poetics, but because it displays familiar strategies for poem-making.

What we looked for, and found, were poems of clarity and suggestiveness, poems that act as a dynamic conversation with the reader—rule poems, riddle poems, mix-of-register poems, social pattern poems with something withheld, poems which are dramatic, lyrical but coherent, without tired lines or dull phrases. In Dinah Hawken’s ‘Stone’ and Bernadette Hall’s ‘In search of happiness’ the poem is a knot or spell or charm. 'Avalanche', by the Irish poet and New Zealand resident Caoilinn Hughes, provides a fine point of difference even where we recognise the familiar. It follows the theme of wild nature as scene of catastrophe and transformation, in a similar manner to Baxter’s ‘Poem in the Matukituki Valley’, but not to a grandiose Baxterian conclusion: extreme Nature, here, does not ‘shower its sermon upon us’. Afforded no romantic or religious epiphany, the speaker records the perils of metaphor. We found also poems that take oblique angles to a familiar topic like animals: Fleur Adcock’s teasing out of the beauty of ‘Blowflies’; Therese Lloyd’s fascination with the word ‘striation’ in ‘Other Animals’; Anna Jackson’s ‘Sabina, and the chain of friendship’ that begins with a woman holding a hen and devolves into the rules of confidences.

A niggling question as we read though the material was whether good poetry—or in accord with our remit, the ‘best’—derives from experience or is more cerebral? Bill Manhire’s dicta from his 1997 book Mutes and Earthquakes are ‘1. Write what you know, and 2. Write what you don’t know’. The second category—writing about what one doesn’t know—is more demanding and more thinly spread through the publications of 2013, and ‘know’ in the wider sense than simply ‘have experienced’ is even thinner. It is also the source of the most ambitious and the most satisfying work. We found it especially where researched knowledge was involved in the construction of a poem. Amy Brown’s book-length poem The Odour of Sanctity, composed of a variety of historical voices dealing with the conferring of sainthood, is a case in point. This is an intellectually based poem. We don’t mean by this that it is philosophical poetry, although that would not be amiss. Rather we mean it is a poem to which a complex response is profitable, and the satisfactions of reading the work are dispersed over a long reading process rather than concentrated in a brief but moving one. Poems that contain information and knowledge require work by poet and reader. And the move away from the lyrical voice is welcome. We have been able to include only a section from Odour, ‘She wanted the voice of birds (Christina Rossetti—1894)’, but are confident that it will impel readers to seek out the poem as a whole.

Odour is then a long poem and—although this seems a rather crude measure—‘best’ as biggest. We have included a number of impressive long poems, or in one case, that of Ian Wedde’s ‘The Lifeguard’, the first section of a long poem, and note that it is a significant feature of the many of the poems: John Newton’s ‘Great Days in New Zealand Painting’; Anne Kennedy’s ‘Flood Monologue’; Michele Leggott’s ‘experiments (our life together)’; Sarah Broom’s ‘gleam’. Dinah Hawken’s ‘Stone’ is part of a sequence, page : stone : leaf. The long poem is a highly valued form in other literatures—Canadian poetry, for example. It is a form that needs confidence and verbal dexterity, an acutely communicated and pointed narrative voice, and a sense of formal structure and direction. But most of all it needs an intellectual framework—even if one’s overt subject is a hat-maker or a stream in flood.

Poems with a demonstrable intellectual framework allow space within those frameworks to reach out to other intellectual systems or other artistic forms. We find literary referentiality in many of the works we have considered and selected: in Amy Brown’s sequence of voices and in Kate Camp’s ‘On reading Gray’s Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard’; in Murray Edmond’s ‘Conversation with my uncle’. Interestingly, although a feature of the last two decades has been work which demonstrates an awareness of and playfulness with the New Zealand canon, Edmond’s is a lonely instance in 2013, while John Newton’s ‘Great Days in New Zealand Painting’ carries us back to obscure literary sources. And then there are the works of ekphrasis, Mary-Jane Duffy’s ‘Here we give thanks’ or Cliff Fell’s ‘Chagall in Vitebsk’, where the visual and the verbal coalesce. Hawken’s page : stone : leaf is to be read in concert with the lapidary art of John Edgar.

Fifteen years ago a collection such as this would have included poems which respond to New Zealand’s colonial past. Recent works by novelists such as Hamish Clayton, Eleanor Catton, Lawrence Patchett and Tina Makereti have pursued colonial motifs—as setting if not as subject. We found little indication that poets were interested in this area in 2013. The past, when foregrounded, is personal, one of family history indistinctly grasped, as in Johanna Emeney’s ‘Captions’: lost definitions, lost homes, lost narratives accessed by memory. Experience is tempered by mortality, as in Elizabeth Smither’s ‘My mother visits me in hospital’; or the resonant phrase ‘hearing yourself age’ in Vincent O’Sullivan’s ‘When, exactly?’; or Sarah Broom’s ‘gleam’, an extraordinary description of the moment-by-moment experience of pain and illness and treatment.

When we edited The Auckland University Press Anthology of New Zealand Literature, the most difficult part of the project was the compiling of the final section since 2000. The field seemed amorphous, the important figures, especially the young writers, difficult to pin down, their significant works even more so. We felt at times that we were working in the dark with little but our own apprehensions of wonder to assist an insecure sense of clairvoyance. It was the section of the anthology that subsequently attracted the most critical heat although finally it was the section we felt most moved by. Perhaps the difficulty was that, in an anthology, the editors are required to provide a narrative, and in the context of the most recent writers, the unfinished and the emergent, the narrative was necessarily incomplete and evolving. With BNZP 2013 we have delighted in the tightness of the remit and its lack of relation to larger patterns and generalised meanings. We feel grateful to all those whose work we read. In the end we chose 25 poems by 25 poets written according to what we hope has been a sense of wonder apprehended through the intellect and registered in the patterns of language.

Jane Stafford and Mark Williams

25 February 2014

Jane Stafford teaches in the English programme of Victoria University of Wellington. She is the co-editor of The Auckland University Press Anthology of New Zealand Literature (2012), the co-editor of Floating Worlds: Essays on Contemporary New Zealand Fiction (2009) and the co-author of Maoriland: New Zealand Literature 1872-1914 (2006).

Mark Williams has edited three anthologies of New Zealand poetry—for the Caxton Press; for Oxford University Press (with Jenny Bornholdt and Greg O'Brien); and for the Russian publisher, New Literary Review. Most recently, with Jane Stafford, he edited The Auckland University Press Anthology of New Zealand Literature. He has published and edited numerous monographs, collections and articles on New Zealand writing and modern literature generally. He is on the editorial boards of several international journals, including Journal of Commonwealth Literature and Canadian Literature.