The people who wrote the first New Zealand poems in English were businessmen, administrators or colonial politicians who had ventured to New Zealand to settle the new country. Writing the occasional poem, or in some cases a great many poems, was something they did in their spare time.
These colonial poets brought with them, literally (in their luggage) and figuratively (in their heads), the favourite poets of Victorian England. English poets such as Alfred Tennyson and Robert Browning told them what a poem should feel like, but, as they struggled to respond to a new environment, these post-Romantic styles were an uncomfortable fit. Their work has not been well received subsequently.
A case in point is Thomas Bracken, whose best-known poem is the national anthem, ‘God defend New Zealand’. Allen Curnow described Bracken’s dozen volumes as ‘the weightiest objects of rhyme in the nation’s cupboard of worthless keepsakes’.1
Bracken was not the only one to write large quantities of verse. Alfred Domett’s epic Ranolf and Amohia: a south-sea day-dream (1872) is longer than Paradise lost by English poet John Milton. However, this sprawling cross-cultural romance is more or less unreadable by a modern audience.
In Australia during the same period the ‘bush’ poets (Banjo Paterson, Henry Lawson) were writing popular ballad (or story-telling) poetry that felt at home in the Australian environment. To later Australian writers this would offer a useful beginning. New Zealand’s nearest equivalent, the ballad poetry of David McKee Wright, seems only half-formed by comparison.
Come all you tonguers and land-loving lubbers,
Here’s a job cutting in and boiling down blubbers,
A job for the youngster or old and ailing,
The Agent will take any man for shore whaling.
I am paid in soap, and sugar, and rum,
For cutting in whale and boiling down tongue.
The Agent’s fee makes my blood so t’boil,
I’ll push him in a hot pot of oil!2
Later scholars have combed the 19th century searching for anything that might have been overlooked in these sweeping judgements. Jessie Mackay has earned fresh consideration, though less for her poetry than for her progressive politics. Arthur Adams has received some recognition for several poems he wrote as a young man which expressed an unsentimental attitude to the New Zealand landscape. Many anthologies have included poems that focused on the colonial condition by two men active in Liberal politics: William Pember Reeves and Edward Tregear.
A small number of songs and ballads from the pre-1840 whaling and sealing era have also emerged. But the rewards have been greater in prose than in poetry, and chiefly of interest to academic specialists. For other readers, the best place to look for pre-20th-century poetry that still feels alive is not in English but in Māori.
In the early years of the 20th century, poetry continued largely in the same confused vein as in the 19th century. The talented poets who did emerge are remarkable for what they achieved in such isolated conditions.
The first European New Zealander to write a poem of genuine distinction was Blanche Baughan. A well-educated, adventurous woman with a degree in Greek and an interest in mysticism, Baughan arrived in New Zealand from England in 1900. Her long visionary poem ‘A bush section’ (1908) is based on her experiences in Hawke’s Bay shortly after her arrival. The poem adopts its shape from American poet Walt Whitman. Its long unrhymed lines sprawl across the page.
Although it portrays in stark detail the desolation left by the destruction of the bush, the poem also has Whitman’s sense of spiritual excitability. Anything seems possible in the new settlement. In a lesser writer this optimism might seem naïve, but Baughan looks so clearly at what is in front of her that she makes it feel real.
My garage is a structure of excessive plainness,
It springs from a dry bank in the back garden,
It is made of corrugated iron,
And painted all over with brick-red.
And beside it I have planted a green Bay-tree,
– A sweet Bay, an Olive, and a Turkey Fig,
– A Fig, an Olive, and a Bay.1
Like Baughan, Mary Ursula Bethell was English-born and of independent means. Also like Baughan, she settled on the hills above Christchurch, where her cottage in Cashmere became the setting for her best-known poems. These first appeared (under the pseudonym Evelyn Hayes) in From a garden in the antipodes (1929).
Where ‘A Bush Section’ is sprawling and inclusive, Bethell’s poems are brief, spare and controlled. ‘Detail’ begins, ‘My garage is a structure of excessive plainness’; the entire poem is just seven lines long.
The sparseness and delicacy of her observations calls to mind the imagism of modernist poets such as Ezra Pound. It is likely that, like Pound, she was influenced by Oriental poetry.
Neither Baughan nor Bethell was writing in an entirely original mode (poets always draw on other poets). It is more that the styles they adopted seemed to match their New Zealand circumstances better than the Victorian models that most poets still favoured. Additionally, the influences that touched them are those that would shape the mainstream of modern poetry.
Eileen Duggan was a devout Catholic whose work was widely read in the 1920s and 1930s. However, because her work appears untouched by the grittier styles that would mould 20th-century tastes, her poems seem quaint and inaccessible by comparison with Bethell’s.
This short straight sword
I got in Rome
when Gaul’s new lord
came tramping home:
It did that grim
old rake to a T –
if it did him,
well, it does me.
Leave the thing of pearls
with silken tassels
to priests and girls
and currish vassals:
Here’s no fine cluster
on the hilt, this drab
blade lacks lustre –
but it can stab.2
R. A. K. Mason was a native-born Aucklander who published remarkably mature poems while still a teenager.
Mason appears a mysteriously isolated figure. Legend has it that, in despair at not finding an audience, he dumped 200 copies of his first book into the Waitematā Harbour. And yet in Britain an admiring editor, Harold Monro, was publishing his work alongside the foremost modernist poets T. S. Eliot and Ezra Pound.
Mason was proficient in Latin, and Latin poetry helped shape his own, as did 20th-century British realists such as A. E. Housman. Mason’s poems were brief, bare and grim. There is almost no reference to New Zealand in them. His unsparing vision would strike a chord with the new poets of the 1930s.
The new generation of writers who emerged in the 1930s have been called the ‘Phoenix generation’, the ‘Caxton generation’, or the ‘literary nationalists’. The Phoenix was the title of a short-lived literary journal out of Auckland University in which a number of these new writers first appeared. The Caxton Press, established by Denis Glover in Christchurch, set a new standard of printing craftsmanship and published their most important texts.
‘Literary nationalism’ implied that the writer’s most important subject matter, and the writer’s true audience, were both to be found at home, in New Zealand. It also implied that literature had a key role to play in establishing what it meant to be a New Zealander.
The group’s most persuasive thinker and spokesman was poet Allen Curnow. In two crucial poetry anthologies, A book of New Zealand verse 1923–45 (1945) and The Penguin book of New Zealand verse (1960), Curnow summed up the history of New Zealand poetry from a nationalist point of view.
His long, polemical essays that introduced each book are considered by many to be the most important literary criticism ever written in New Zealand, and continue to shape the way many readers understand New Zealand poetry.
Allen Curnow wrote: ‘The thirties released – or tapped – a spring. It seemed that New Zealand had its own small audience, alert for new poetry. It began to look to its own creative resources, not this time to provide it with something national to brag about, but to satisfy a real hunger of the spirit.’1
Curnow’s enthusiasm for ‘local reality’ was not the naïve cheer-leading of a tourist promotion or a sporting event. On the contrary, he often seems to belittle New Zealand’s achievements and its place in the world.
His argument was that several generations of writers had been so shocked by their dislocation from Britain that they had failed to come to grips with what was in front of them. The truth, he insisted, was ‘something different, something/Nobody counted on’.2
Curnow saw himself as building an ‘anti-myth’,3 stripping away the fantasies with which earlier poets had protected themselves from reality. Like his own early work, the poetry that he admired was often negative or disenchanted. He was in tune with the British modernists and insisted, like Ezra Pound, on hardness, concreteness and a lack of decoration. This led him and his poetic colleagues such as A. R. D. Fairburn to express a distaste for some women poets, including Jessie Mackay and Eileen Duggan, as overly sentimental.
Much that had been valued by earlier generations was effectively wiped off the map by Curnow’s critical writing. Charles Brasch, who founded the journal Landfall in 1947, likened the 1945 anthology to ‘a hard frost’ that ‘killed off weeds and promoted sound growth’.4
The poets who launched their careers with the Caxton Press in the 1930s saw themselves as the initiators of a national literature. It was a bold claim; and yet, to a large extent later readers have agreed with them.
Allen Curnow, Charles Brasch, Denis Glover and A. R. D. Fairburn are acknowledged as having raised New Zealand poetry to a new level of seriousness. The 1930s and early 1940s have been described as the most coherent period in New Zealand’s literary history. Among these four important poets there were personal ties of friendship. They shared a publisher (Caxton), they shared the experience of the 1930s economic depression in their early adulthood, and three of the four were South Islanders with a strong attraction to the South Island landscape. All of them were interested in the kind of cultural nationalist ideas best articulated by Curnow. Nonetheless, they are four quite distinct poetic personalities.
Whaling for continents coveted deep in the south
The Dutchman envied the unknown, drew bold
Images of market-place, populous rivermouth,
The Land of Beach ignorant of the value of gold.
Morning in Murderers’ Bay
Blood drifted away.
It was something different, something
Nobody counted on.1
Allen Curnow was always the most intellectual and tough-minded of the group. His poems shine an unsparing light on New Zealand history, its pretensions and its failures of self-knowledge.
In his poetry the European discovery of New Zealand is like the biblical fall. ‘The stain of blood that writes an island story’2 has never been wiped out. It haunts the country’s subsequent history, so that a feeling of being truly at home is continually postponed: ‘Not I, some child born in a marvellous year/Will learn the trick of standing upright here.’3
After writing some of the most important poetry of the mid-century, in the 1960s Curnow appeared to stop writing. He re-emerged, however, to enjoy a ‘second’ career, a highlight of which was his 1979 collection An incorrigible music.
I remember paddocks opening green
On mountains tussock-brown,
And the rim of fire on the hills,
And the river running down;
And the smoke of the burning scrub,
And my two uncles tall,
And the smell of earth new-ploughed,
And the antlers in the hall,
Then Uncle Jim was off to the wars
With a carbine at his saddle
And was killed in the Transvaal
– I forget in just what battle.
And Uncle Simon left the farm
After some wild quarrel,
Rolled his blanket and rode off
Whistling on his sorrel …4
Denis Glover had an unrivalled ear for the musical qualities of poetry. However, he was also suspicious of poetry, as if it were not really a manly activity. Sometimes his work is genuinely witty; at other times he resorts to a kind of clowning that reads like a defence mechanism.
But when his lyricism and his scepticism achieve the right balance, as in the Sings Harry sequence (1951), the result can be dazzling. Glover at his best appeals to a wide range of readers. ‘The magpies’ may well be New Zealand’s best-known poem.
Glover’s friend A. R. D. (Rex) Fairburn was equally divided about poetry, and even more inclined to divert himself with humorous side-projects. However, his long poem Dominion is among New Zealand’s most bitter social commentaries. Fairburn was an advocate for social credit, and the poem is highly opinionated, especially about economic matters. At the same time there is a deeply romantic streak in Fairburn (he wrote the best love poems of the era) and an almost mystical attachment to nature.
Charles Brasch was a more sober poet. His South Island landscapes capture his generation’s sense of being embarked on a lonely cultural mission in a beautiful but almost uninhabitable place.
Not here our sands, those salt-and-pepper sands
Mounding us to the chins: (don’t you remember?
Won’t the lost shake for any cry at all?)
Listen: our sands, so clean you didn’t care
If fine grains hit your teeth, stuck in your hair,
Were moist against the sunburn on your knees.
Everything glowed – old tar-bubble November,
Nothing around us but blue-bubbling air…5
The one major poet of the 1930s who doesn’t fit comfortably under the nationalist blanket is Robin Hyde. A prolific, inconsistent writer, her death by her own hand at the age of 33 left a body of work which has proved difficult to assimilate.
It has been suggested that the biggest problem in appreciating Hyde is that subsequent readers have largely inherited the values (and prejudices) of her male contemporaries. Hyde herself, though, was steering by different lights. Unlike Curnow, for instance, she was not seduced by contemporary British modernism.
For these reasons, Hyde’s work is apt to strike readers today as lush, baggy and often rather old-fashioned. Her most accessible poems, such as ‘Houses by the sea’ and the poems she wrote travelling as a journalist in war-torn China, are those which sound most like the poems that others were writing.
James K. Baxter exploded onto the poetry scene in the mid-1940s. Like R. A. K. Mason, he was a teenage prodigy. But, unlike Mason, he was consistently prolific and would remain firmly in the spotlight until his well-publicised death at the age of 46.
Alone we are born
And die alone;
Yet see the red-gold cirrus
Over snow-mountain shine.
Upon the upland road
Ride easy, stranger:
Surrender to the sky
Your heart of anger.1
Baxter’s poetic signature was the fluency of his poetry. He could be repetitive in his themes, romantically obsessed with death and the loss of childhood innocence, but his eloquence carried a great many readers with him (and nearly all readers, some of the time).
He had wide scope and a strong sense of ethical responsibility. His poems range from obscene ballads to fierce political satire, and to the strongly Catholic confessional poems of his years at Jerusalem, on the Whanganui River. In this final period he enjoyed a public profile unique for a New Zealand poet, and he used it, with considerable success, to try to make Pākehā more aware of Māori.
For many readers Baxter remains the definitive New Zealand poet. His fame reflects, not just a great gift, but a fearless commitment to his poetic vocation.
Baxter was among a group of younger Wellington poets who in the 1950s took up arms against Allen Curnow’s nationalism. The most gifted, after Baxter, was Alistair Campbell, a love poet of great delicacy. Fleur Adcock, who was married to Campbell for five years, spent much of her life in England, but her restrained poems about human relationships are commonly included in anthologies of New Zealand poetry. The middle-class, suburban observations of Peter Bland have also lasted well.
The younger poets in Auckland were seen to be closer to Curnow, and tensions between Auckland and Wellington were evident through the 1950s and early 1960s.
The Auckland group included Kendrick Smithyman, a formally and intellectually challenging poet, well versed in North American modernism. C. K. Stead gained academic recognition for his work on modernist poets W. B. Yeats, Ezra Pound and T. S. Eliot. However, his own extensive body of poetry, lyrical and at times witty, is as much conversational as scholarly.
Two other new poets of the period fall outside these groupings.
Vincent O’Sullivan, who, like Stead, was a distinguished scholar, is known particularly for his work on Katherine Mansfield. As exemplified in his ‘Butcher’ poems, O’Sullivan’s work is dense and ironic.
come rain hail
Hone Tuwhare has the distinction of being the first Māori poet published in English. A boilermaker by trade, and a former communist, Tuwhare drew inspiration from R. A. K. Mason. His own work, however, is more expansive. Warm, good-humoured and full of appetite, Tuwhare’s poems have a breadth of appeal perhaps second only to Baxter’s.
The short-lived magazine The word is freed (usually abbreviated to Freed) marked the arrival on the poetry scene of the generation born after the Second World War: the so-called ‘baby boomers’. Like The Phoenix, Freed (1968–73) emerged from the University of Auckland, and its originators set out to make a similar break with the past.
This break would be affirmed by an anthology, The young New Zealand poets (1973), edited by Arthur Baysting, and by a new quarterly journal, Islands, established in 1972 by Robin Dudding.
The next 15 years or so in New Zealand poetry would be dominated by the rise of these confident young writers. Their work reflected a turn towards American poetic influences, as well as the cultural and political energies of the late 1960s: sexual and ‘chemical’ liberation, opposition to the Vietnam War, television, rock music and American counter-culture.
The outstanding writers to emerge from this group were Ian Wedde and Bill Manhire. In some ways they seem like opposites. Wedde is expansive, often talkative, sometimes polemical; Manhire is the minimalist, wry, enigmatic perfectionist. But what they shared in the 1970s, and shared with other poets of their cohort such as Sam Hunt and Murray Edmond was a new tone, a new warmth and intimacy. Their focus on personal relationships, on direct address, and on the private sphere, distinguished their writing quite clearly from both Allen Curnow’s and James K. Baxter’s.
Diesel trucks past the Scrovegni chapel
Catherine Deneuve farting onion fritters
The world’s greedy anarchy, I love it!
Hearts that break, garlic fervent in hot oil
Jittery exultation of the soul
Minds that are tough and have good appetites
Everything in love with its opposite
I love it! O how I love it! (It’s all
plus Carlos: a wide dreaming eye
above her breast,
a hand tangling her hair,
breath filling the room as blood does the heart.
We must amend our lives murmured Rilke
gagging on his legacy of air.
Hang onto yours Carlos it’s all you’ve got.1
Wedde quickly established himself as the generation’s most dynamic figure. After a series of outstanding books in the 1970s and early 1980s, he was a natural choice to co-edit and introduce the new edition of The Penguin book of New Zealand verse (1985). This appeared to indicate that Wedde was approaching Curnow’s status of 25 years earlier.
At this point, however, Wedde took a job as a curator at the Museum of New Zealand and for a decade or so ceased to publish poems. His down-time coincided with the emergence of Bill Manhire as a more public figure, particularly in his role as founder and director of the creative writing programme at Victoria University of Wellington.
While Manhire published excellent work in the late 1970s, it is the work in the 2000s, including Lifted (2005), that has won him increasing recognition, both in New Zealand and overseas.
As Manhire’s career progressed, his work became less private and perhaps less intense, becoming more a poet of language than of personal intimacy. However, his craft and his verbal finesse remained constant.
The initial Freed moment was very much a masculine affair. The young New Zealand poets included just one woman, Jan Kemp, among its 19 contributors. But 1975 marked the arrival of a new wave of women writers.
Women poets who published first volumes that year included Fiona Kidman and Lauris Edmond, who succeeded in making poetry out of family experiences. Another distinctive poetic talent to emerge was Elizabeth Smither. While most of her male contemporaries embraced openness, expansiveness and formal freedom, Smither followed the opposite direction.
Something formal, say a silver jug
By Cellini or espaliering apples
Can be approached by two methods:
Usefulness: Cellini was known for spouts
And espaliering apples is practical
In a narrow garden with one wall
Or envy: Who gave the popes these millions
Who left these fossils of great beauty
Which still fruit in irony?2
Her poems are tight and formally exact. She likened the sonnet form to an espaliered apple tree (its branches trained to grow flat), a suggestive image for her own highly cultivated structures. A typical Smither poem is marked by verbal wit, and an intense delight in metaphor with its ability to deliver surprising revelations.
Cilla McQueen first appeared in 1982 with the sparkling landscape poems of Homing in. The fizzing energy of her work has kept her in the forefront of local poetry ever since.
McQueen, who is also a multimedia artist, is one of a number among her generation to have earned reputations as live performers. It was during the Freed era that public poetry readings first became commonplace.
Perhaps the most charismatic of all live readers was Alan Brunton who, with his partner Sally Rodwell, gained a cult following for the performance troupe Red Mole.
But none enjoyed the sustained success of Sam Hunt, who achieved the seemingly impossible in earning a living as a professional bard.
The most eye-catching feature of Ian Wedde and Harvey McQueen’s anthology The Penguin book of New Zealand verse (1985) was the inclusion, for the first time in such a collection, of poetry in the Māori language. The decision provoked controversy, but reflected the emerging values of the time.
This marks the beginning of a period in which familiar value judgments have to come to seem less stable. To identify a central thread in the poetry of the years since would be to misrepresent the era.
In 1989 a companion anthology, The Penguin book of contemporary New Zealand poetry, brought into the fold a generous muster of poets born since the mid-1950s. They included David Eggleton, Janet Charman, Leigh Davis, Anne French, Michele Leggott, Jenny Bornholdt and Gregory O’Brien. Also new were two poets a few years older: Dinah Hawken and Bernadette Hall.
I wanted to mouth you all over
spring clouds spring rain spring
tenderness of afternoons spent
blazing trails to this
place where breath roars through
the famous architecture of a poet’s ear
Rose and peony buds and tongue
ichthyous tumble honey and pearl –
the runner’s foot has touched and adored
wistaria sprang after you, figs tipped
green air astounded by your passage
to the audient quays of the city
Now it begins, another voyage after nemesis
blue-eyed with the distance of it all1
In 1997 An anthology of New Zealand poetry in English, edited by Jenny Bornholdt, Gregory O’Brien and Mark Williams, added further newly established voices, among them: Geoff Cochrane, Chris Orsman, Andrew Johnston, Robert Sullivan and the versatile playwright, fiction-writer and poet, Fiona Farrell. The anthology also included the influential Pacific writer Albert Wendt. All these writers have enjoyed successful careers, along with newer arrivals such as Anne Kennedy, Diana Bridge and James Brown. But, aside from their freshness and their ongoing productivity, it is not easy to suggest common denominators.
I want to tattoo my legs.
Not blue or green
I want to sit opposite the tufuga
and know he means me pain
I want him to bring out his chisel
and strike my thighs
the whole circumference of them
like walking right round the world
like paddling across the whole Pacific
in a log
knowing that once you’ve pushed off
loaded the dogs on board
there’s no looking back now, Bingo.
I want my legs as sharp as dogs’ teeth
wild Samoan dogs
the mangy kind that bite strangers.2
In the early 2000s there were more books of poetry being published than at any time in New Zealand’s history.
A contributor to this profusion was the rise of creative writing programmes. By far the best-known and most successful has been the International Institute of Modern Letters (IIML), established by Bill Manhire at Victoria University of Wellington. Manhire’s view of writing stresses the hard but also teachable work of making a poem from language. It downplays the romantic approach of poetry being an overflow of strong feelings.
A growing roster of successful graduates inevitably provoked questions about ‘cloning’ and ‘production lines’. But, while there are common features among many of these Manhire-schooled writers, their ranks include poets as different from one another as the sardonic stylist Kate Camp and the punchy and dramatic Tusiata Avia.
The IIML and the associated poetry list of Victoria University Press constitutes a kind of ‘centre’ in the poetry landscape. But this is to ignore not just the diversity of the list itself, but all kinds of poets and poetries prospering elsewhere. For some time Auckland had a group interested in postmodern and American poetry, and open to more experimental work. This included Leigh Davis, Alan Loney, Wystan Curnow and Michele Leggott – who, apart from her own poetic work, brought Robin Hyde’s poetry back into consideration and set up a major website, the New Zealand Electronic Poetry Centre.
Older poets Vincent O’Sullivan and C. K. Stead continued to write as well as ever. Of the 1970s generation, Ian Wedde, Elizabeth Smither, Cilla McQueen, Murray Edmond and Sam Hunt were still prospering in the 2000s. New audiences were discovered for the Central Otago landscapes of veteran Brian Turner and the bicultural populism of Glenn Colquhoun. Accomplished performance poets included Selina Tusitala Marsh and Hinemoana Baker. Other poets to emerge in the 2000s included Anna Jackson, Bulgarian-born Kapka Kassabova, Chris Price and Sonja Yelich.
And this is to say nothing of the poetry that found its audience in other places: writing groups, open mics, poetry slams. The New Zealand Poetry Society, a national organisation for poets, published a bi-monthly newsletter and held monthly meetings in Wellington. The Canterbury Poets Collective was very active in Christchurch. Regular readings included Circadian Rhythm in Dunedin and Poetry Live in Auckland. Poets were well-represented at literary festivals. Paula Green was influential in promoting poetry in a variety of ways, including a poetry blog for children.
After around 150 years of New Zealand poetry in English, the practice has never been in better health.
Bornholdt, Jenny, Gregory O’Brien, and Mark Williams, eds. An anthology of New Zealand poetry in English. Auckland: Oxford University Press, 1997.
Curnow, Allen, ed. The Penguin book of New Zealand verse. Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1960.
Evans, Miriama, Harvey McQueen, and Ian Wedde, eds. The Penguin book of contemporary New Zealand poetry. Auckland: Penguin, 1990.
Green, Paula, and Harry Ricketts. 99 ways into New Zealand poetry. Auckland: Vintage, 2010.
Stafford, Jane, and Mark Williams, eds. The Auckland University Press anthology of New Zealand literature. Auckland: Auckland University Press, 2012.
Wedde, Ian, and Harvey McQueen. The Penguin book of New Zealand verse. Auckland: Penguin, 1985.